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Oral L. Wildermuth
It was dark outside, but the lights were bright on the Christmas tree. Everything was waiting. Then we heard the sleigh bells. Dick and I ran to the door to let in Uncle O and Aunt Cordie. Now the magic of Christmas Eve could begin." That is the way Dorothy (Wildermuth) Vekasi remembers her uncle, Ora L WILDERMUTH. He was a good deal older than her father and not a daily part of her life, but holidays always brought the families together. Uncle O, with his sense of history, was wont to save things of the past-like the sleigh bells-so they could be a part of the future. Ora Wildermuth's past harkened back to an era that was hard for his niece to imagine. Born in 1882 he attended a deestrict school in VanBuren Township, Pulaski County, Indiana. It was a one room school and the teachers often had no more than an eighth grade education. In class the students were drilled in the fundamentals, and, as they hiked through the forest from their farm homes to school, running their traps on the way, they learned firsthand about woodsmanship and the ways of nature.
Continuing an education past eighth grade proved a challenge, but Ora seemed to thrive on challenge. He had to travel to Star City for high school, where, by his fourth year, he was the only student and the trustee refused to hire a teacher for one student. Undaunted, Ora boarded in Winamac, and completed high school there. He credited his farm upbringing and the education he received in Pulaski County, both in and out of the classroom, with giving him the breadth of background upon which he drew the rest of his life. After high school Ora taught school for a season, then enrolled in Indiana University. For the next four years he divided his time between studying and earning money to continue. In 1906 he was one of six to received a LL.B. from Indiana University Law School. Ora was admitted to the bar, and moved to northern Lake County where a new town was being carved out of the sand dunes. For someone who liked challenges, the embryotic town of Gary was the place to be. He arrived in August 1906, when there was little besides a mill under construction and few people other than the construction workers. He worked for a couple of months laying concrete for the first blast furnace. With families beginning to arrive it became evident that there was a need for a school.
A three-man school board was chosen with A.F. Knotts president and Ora was named teacher. Recalling those days when he and Knotts were rooming together at the old Fitz Hotel, Ora jokingly commented, "...the teacher had no difficulty in reaching his board, and the board was in comparatively frequent touch with the teacher, at least physically, for we slept in the same bed and he who slept in the back had to get in first for there was not room to walk around the bed." The schoolhouse was located just north of what was to become 4th Ave. and the west side of Broadway. Its space for 36 students was not adequate for the number of youngsters and the story goes that, when the seats were filled, the door was closed. If you wanted an education, you couldn't tarry on the way to school. The need for books was quickly apparent and a committee of women suggested holding an oyster supper in the schoolhouse. They wondered about attendance, but word was sent to the construction camps and on the appointed night the schoolhouse was jammed. Enough money was raised for 75 books. Thirty years later Ora was quoted, "I took charge of the collection [of books], though I didn't know a thing on earth about handling a library. The youngsters found some cardboard somewhere and cutup cards. I'm sure our system wouldn't pass muster now." Before winter-across Broadway from the schoolhouse-Ora constructed a tar-paper covered shack in which he lived and had his first law office. Because on cold nights tramps were wont to break into the schoolhouse and use the books to fuel a fire, the books were moved to Ora's office.
Thus, within a few months, Ora Wildermuth had become Gary's first resident lawyer, first schoolteacher, and first librarian. All of his life Ora maintained a law practice in Gary with offices at 690 Broadway. He was the first president of the Gary Bar Association and chairman of the committee on admissions to the bar from 1916 to 1925. He belonged to Bar Associations in the District and State as well as the American Bar Association. He was Gary's first city judge serving from 1910-1914. He is credited in a 1943 American Library Association Bulletin with rewriting Indiana's library laws and by Charles Roll in "Indiana 150 Years of American Development" with being identified with much of the important litigation that came before the courts during his years of practice. At a gathering of Gary pioneers in the mid 1950's, Judge Wildermuth was asked about the stories that circulated about his ridiculously low fees. He responded that those stories were greatly exaggerated and added, "First they said I defended a fellow charged with petty larceny and charged him $10. The next time around the charge was grand larceny and my fee was $5. Finally they said the charge was first degree murder and my fee was $2." Interest in education became a lifetime commitment for Judge Wildermuth. In 1929 he was elected to Indiana University's Board of Trustees and continued on the board until he retired in 1951, serving as president for nearly thirteen years. At retirement he was named President Emeritus for life. He was one of the incorporators of the Indiana University Foundation and a member and officer of its board. He also served as a trustee of the Waterman Institute for Scientific Research.
Ora's interest in educational institutions expanded and, in 1939, he was elected president of the Association of Governing Boards of State Universities and Allied Institutions. In a tribute from this organization, Ora was described as a "gentle, wise, scholarly man" with a "youthful spirit" who had a "lasting influence on the future of public education and of higher education." Indiana University awarded him an honorary LL.D. in 1952, and in 1971, named its Intramural Center in his honor. Ora also had a lifelong dedication to library development. In 1908 in Gary he and William Wirt, the founder of the Gary public school system, felt Gary needed a full-fledged library. Ora researched the legalities of setting up a library board and found that the law required five year of residency for board members. Because Gary had not existed that long, it was a requirement that needed circumventing. Believing in the autonomy of a library board, the two men devised a method of establishing a library under the school board but run by a library board which merely reported its actions to the school board. Although awkward in the beginning, this system allowed the library board to be in existence from the start and, once the law allowed, totally independent. On March 30, 1908, the library was officially begun with the first board consisting of Msgr. Thomas Jansen as president and William A. Wirt, Mrs. John E. Sears, and Ora L. Wildermuth as members. Even though they had yet to get a stick of furniture or a book, the board hired a librarian, Louis J. Bailey. Later Ora commented with a chuckle, "Smartest thing we ever did." In the fall, when the library opened, it had 936 books, a traveling library of 250 books and 75 magazines. Ora remained a member of the library board for 50 years serving as president for 35 of those years. The Branch Library in Miller is named for him. As with education, Ora Wildermuth's interest in libraries expanded and he served as president of the combined Gary-Lake County Library Board from 1940-1948. He became president of the Indiana Library Trustees Association and held various offices in the Trustees Section of the American Library Association which, in 1943, awarded him its Citation of Merit for his work as a trustee. In an address to that organization honoring Judge Wildermuth and recounting his role in establishing the Gary Library, Laurance J. Harwood said, "There was not [even] the oft- mentioned blade of grass from which to make two grow. He planted the first blade." In a 1946 letter to I.U. Alumni Secretary, George F. Heighway, Wildermuth commented on his joy in working with the University and the Gary Library, but noted that it left little time for his law practice. He concluded, "Paradoxical as it may seem, one may enjoy living so much that he starves himself to death." Despite these tugs on his time, his interests were not limited to law, education, and libraries. In the early days of Gary, he was part of a group that gathered in the only place they could find-above a saloon- to organize an interdenominational church. Later he assisted in the organization of Gary's First Congregational Church and was a member of its board of trustees from its inception. During World War I he was a "Four-Minute Man" receiving a certificate of honor signed by Woodrow Wilson, and during the depression he was Chairman of the Governor's Committee of Unemployment Relief. Judge Wildermuth was a democrat, and, when young, he was active in politics. He was a member of the old Commercial Club in Gary and was the sixth President of the Chamber of Commerce for a year.
He was an active advocate and patron of the YMCA, where his favorite sport was volleyball. For a time he was a director of the Indiana State YMCA. He was one of the original organizers and officers of Turkey Creek Country Club. Judge Wildermuth showed leadership in commercial ventures serving as President of Gary and Southern Railroad Co. from 1918 until it was sold in 1928 and President of Gary and Hobart Traction Co. from 1916 to 1924. For a time he was Vice President and Director of Barnes Ice and Coal Co. in Gary, Secretary and Director of Lake City Ice and Coal Co. of Michigan City, and a Director of Glen Park State Bank. Cordelia Wilds, daughter or John and Sophia (Kelley) Wilds, and Ora Wildermuth were married in Peru, Indiana, on September 3, 1907. Their daughter, Maxine, graduated from Emerson High School in 1927. She married John Tula who died in 1962. (Maxine died in Lake County on June 27, 1996 at the age of 87).. After a long illness, Cordelia died April 23, 1941. The following year Ora married Mae R. (Arnold) London, who had been Porter County Clerk for a number of years. Ora was widowed again in 1951 and four years later he married Mildred (Polak) Frolik, a long time teacher at Horace Mann High School. For many years Ora resided at 626 Pierce Street in Gary in a large formal house surrounded by ample grounds enclosed in a wrought iron fence.
A tunnel connected the garage to the basement where Ora had set up a small woodworking shop. Ora loved wood and would seek out some special piece that had meaning for a retiring president of a governing board and would then fashion it into a gavel as a gift. Ora also built an informal home at 7432 Lake Shore Dr. Later in life, after a serious illness, he wintered in Naples, Florida, where he maintained a residence as well as one at 5251 E. 6th Place in Gary. While in Naples, he served on the Collier County Library Board of Trustees and was a member of the Florida Library Trustees Association. Ora Wildermuth died in Gary on November 16, 1964. Funeral services were held at the City Methodist Church with Herman Wells, President of Indiana University, giving the principal eulogy. He is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery. He will, of course, be remembered for his many accomplishments. He will also be remembered as a man in touch with his roots, yet ever interested in the present and how he might best serve it. He was a the consummate storyteller - always including a sprinkling of humor.
Source: Submitted by: Dorothy Wildermuth Vekasi - dvekasi@aol.com NOTE: In 1995 Ora L Wildermuth was placed in the Steel City Hall of Fame.