---- — Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on how the Peru Community Schools Fine Arts Gallery got its start.
They were something. One died tragically at a young age, a budding star suddenly gone. The other passed on in 1965, an exhilarating life over.
Both were born and raised in Peru.
I wrote about them last week in tracing the origin of the Peru Community Schools Fine Art Gallery.
As Paul Harvey would say, here’s the rest of the story about John Miller "Whit" Whittenberger and G. David Thompson.
First there was Whittenberger.
If you are familiar with Whittenberger Auditorium inside the Memorial Union at Indiana University, the facility is named after him.
The honor was bestowed after Whittenberger’s premature death at the age of 24 in August 1910.
When I read the opening sentence of Whittenberger’s obituary in the Sept. 30, 1910, edition of the Peru Republican, I knew I was reading about a special person.
Here’s that opening sentence:
“No young man ever passed to his eternal sleep in this community, for whom the people of Peru and vicinity had a higher regard, than John Miller Whittenberger, son of Mr. and Mrs. John F. Whittenberger, south of the city on the Santa Fe pike, who died last Monday morning at 6:30 o’clock.”
The obit goes on to say, “It is understood that when the young man became afflicted with typhoid fever and was compelled to go to bed that he discouraged those about him by intimating that this would be his last sickness.”
Whittenberger reportedly improved twice, but suffered relapses and died peacefully in his sleep.
The community was aghast.
Schools closed for his funeral, according to the obit. At Oak Grove Cemetery, where Whittenberger was interred, the casket was opened. Hundreds of school children and others passed by. Students and faculty members at IU attended the service.
Whittenberger had achieved prominence at IU by being the founder and the first president of the Indiana Memorial Union — arguably now one of the greatest campus gathering places in the world, with more than 500,000 square feet.
A memorial published in the 1911 IU yearbook, Arbutus, says, “… the Union which he founded … was his organization, but he gathered about him the most influential men in the University.”
Whittenberger was a Big Man on Campus. He was a member of Delta Upsilon fraternity and played football.
An editorial in the Indiana Daily Student after his death said, “Probably no other undergrad has left such a legacy at IU.”
Whittenberger returned to Peru to teach at Central Elementary School. In those days, the faculty elected the principal, and Whittenberger had been chosen before his death. He appeared to be a natural choice.
But he had gotten caught up in an outbreak of typhoid fever while he was taking a summer course at IU in 1910.
A Delta Upsilon website page that spotlights Whittenberger, says:
“[T]wenty students were stricken. This was an era when restaurant customers had to use privies and public drinking cups were common. We can be thankful our public health has improved greatly since then.
“Many members of Delta Upsilon have served on the Union Board that Whittenberger founded. … In 1980, this alumni group was formalized as the John Whittenberger Society.”
The Peru Republican obit contains this sentence:
“In his teaching in the Peru public schools Mr. Whittenberger won the hearts of his pupils by a kind and patient interest and he was classed one of the best teachers Peru pupils have ever had the good fortune to know.”
One of the hearts Whittenberger won belonged to G. David Thompson, who later described himself as a “hooligan” in his early years.
In their brief time together, Whittenberger straightened Thompson out. Thompson never forgot.
After working in finance, Thompson eventually got into the steel business. By 1945 he was running four companies in Pittsburgh, Pa.
As his wealth rose, he began collecting art in 1935.
Remembering how Whittenberger had inspired him, Thompson chose to honor his favorite teacher by contributing eight pieces of valuable art to Peru schools in 1938. Several more would arrive in later years.
Thompson’s collection, which can be described as eclectic, began to draw worldwide attention as one of the great private assemblages.
In 1960, Life magazine published a four-page spread titled “A Millionaire Amid His Moderns.” A short story is accompanied by wonderful color photos showing Thompson and a tiny part of his collection.
Thompson’s collection is “the talk of the art world,” Life reported.
“To Thompson, every work of art is a friend,” Life wrote.
One photo shows Thompson standing next to a sculpture of a woman sitting on a flat surface with her legs bent, her arms folded on her knees and her face, unseen, between her arms. Life quotes him as saying:
“Every so often I long for some calmness and serenity and this Maillol seems to fill the need and match my mood. Just looking at it seems to have a therapeutic effect.”
Sculptures were scattered throughout Thompson’s home and grounds, Life reported — on table tops, in terraces, in gardens, in the garage.
By the time Life published its piece, Thompson had built a reputation as a shrewd collector. And, apparently, among some people, as an ornery fellow.
In its Spring/Summer 2006 issue, the Pittsburgh Quarterly published a piece by Graham Shearing, a collector, critic, curator, consultant and writer. The article deals with the great art collections that had been built in the Steel City.
Shearing writes: “… as many collectors are, he [Thompson] was a difficult old cuss.”
Maybe so. But Thompson, I sense, was a small-town boy at heart who was sensitive to perceived snobbery of big city swells.
“[Thompson’s] collecting and his business life proceeded simultaneously and with equal aggression. … It has … been said that he failed to be accepted by Pittsburgh’s social elite, yet another rebuff, and one from which he was not to recover. As John Richardson, the biographer of Picasso, suggested in his memoirs: ‘It was Dave's aggressiveness and bragging, not his humble origins that made him persona non grata …To get back at the old guard, Dave set about trouncing them in the field of modern art — the one field where the old guard would not have noticed or cared whether they had been trounced.’”
In a December 2007 blog posted by Al Filreis, an English professor at the University of Pennsyvania, he wrote:
“In ’59 he [Thompson] offered the entire collection to the city of Pittsburgh, and he threw in the house too — which the city, he said, could use as a ready-made museum.
“Pittsburgh said no. Not interested. Thanks, but no thanks.
“Angry and lovin’ a deal, Thompson promptly sold 97 — that's 97, yes — of his Klees to a dealer for more than $1 million, and then began to buy little-known moderns.”
The buyer was Ernst Beyeler, who would later become world-renowned.
Beyeler died in December 2010. The New York Times wrote in his obituary:
“Mr. Beyeler soon began buying undervalued Impressionist and modern works. In one of his biggest coups, he acquired, between 1959 and 1965, a trove of artworks from the Pittsburgh steel baron G. David Thompson, including 100 works by Klee, 90 by Giacometti and hundreds by Cézanne, Monet, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Miró and others.”
If Thompson was unpredictable and aggressive, he was also a generous donor, according to Graham Shearing, who wrote: “The Carnegie Museum of Art has what some regard as its greatest work of art, Willem de Kooning's ‘Woman VI,’ 1953, as well as … some 80 other works of art given by Thompson over the years.”
Shearing also writes about “a spectacular robbery in 1960 … that deprived Thompson and his wife of some of their choicest masterpieces, including a Picasso, from their South Hills home. The paintings were ripped from their stretchers and seriously damaged, but were later recovered after a cloak-and-dagger exercise involving the FBI and ‘stake-outs’ in the New York Public Library.”
Still, Shearing reports, after Thompson died, Sotheby's sold 113 of his paintings and sculptures “for what was then astronomic prices. On the death of his widow, Helene, in 1982, a Monet made $1.2 million at auction, a Klee $467,000 and a Picasso $363,000.”
In an essay Thompson wrote, made available through the Internet Archive, he begins by saying:
“The genuine collector is a rare being. He is the pioneer who assembles a collection on the basis of his taste and knowledge. While he diligently pursues a well chartered course others spend time and money in pursuit of the latest art fad.”
The essay ends:
“Exercising your prerogative as to what you buy and how you display [art] is an important part of the joy of collecting. There is fortunately room for all tastes in today's exciting world of art. I wish it were possible for me to do it all over again.”
In a sense, Thompson is “collecting” art all over again through the Peru Community Schools Fine Arts Gallery.
And still honoring John Miller Whittenberger.
Ray Moscowitz of Bloomington is a retired newspaper executive and former publisher of the Peru Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com.