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Manes: This ‘Dolly’ carries Gary history

Dolly Millender  |  Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media

Dolly Millender | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 17, 2014 6:09AM



“ ... And I said good-bye to the Mayor of Gary and I went out from the city hall and turned the corner into Broadway. And I saw workmen wearing leather shoes scruffed with fire and cinders, and pitted with little holes from running molten steel, and some had bunches of specialized muscles around their shoulder blades hard as pig iron, muscles of their forearms were sheet steel, and they looked to me like men who had been somewhere.”

— Carl Sandburg (1915)

Dharathula H. “Dolly” Millender is founder and CEO of the Gary Historical & Cultural Society, Inc. At 94, Millender is a walking, talking history book. She’s a retired librarian originally from Terre Haute, but has lived in Gary since 1960.

Our interview took place in her office at the Genesis Center on 5th and Broadway in downtown Gary. Her daughter Naomi was in attendance.

***

When did the GHCS come to fruition?

“In 1976,” she said. “They were giving out grants all across the United States for people to put together programs that had to do with the bicentennial of the country. I thought to myself, ‘Well, maybe I can write about Gary and the 47 different ethnic groups who peopled this area.’ I had never written a grant before.”

Continue, please.

“You had to get approval from your city council, and a community committee had to back you up to get the grant.”

How did that go?

“When I did my presentation, the place was packed. To back up a little bit, I had to talk to the councilman of the 6th District first. He told me, ‘I don’t think you’re going to get anything out of this, but you can try.’ ”

And?

“We took Fred Chary, who was getting his Ph.D. in different ethnic groups, and a professor named Nicholas Kanellos, who played the guitar. He was Mexican, I believe.”

Greek, probably.

“I wrote a song called ‘Gary Was Made For You & Me.’ Eugene Kirkland — who was a powerhouse in the city council — told me, ‘It’s your turn to try to convince these people to accept your idea.’ He told me, ‘Good luck’ — halfheartedly. Eugene lived in the Morning Side district of Glen Park, where the rich white folks stayed.

“I told the audience how we were trying to pay tribute to the different ethnic groups who were living in Gary. We wanted to make sure they all got recognition and how this grant would bring all the people together. I started singing my song.”

And?

“I can’t sing.”

What are the odds? You and I are probably the only African-American and Italian-American on the planet who can’t carry a tune.

“Fred’s little boys were beating away on sticks and Nick was playing the guitar. He could really play.”

Belt it out for me, Mahalia!

“It’s been years. Here goes ... ‘I saw before me, an opportunity, Gary was made for you and me. So, now we’re all here, from many cultures, don’t let those outside, divide us inside, we chose to stay here, and build our city, Gary was built for you and me ... ’ ”

Dolly, Woody Guthrie would be in tears.

“They were all looking at me in shock. I guess they were thinking, ‘What’s with this crazy old lady?’ I shouted out for them to join in with me.”

Yeah?

“They joined in and we got the grant.”

Great story. Where did the GHCS meet in the early days?

“My good friend unionist Larry Regan’s mother had a restaurant right across from (Indiana University Northwest) called Jenny’s Cafe. Larry is one of our board members. We’d go to Jenny’s on Sunday afternoons. If the Lithuanians were going to tell about their culture, Jenny would cook Lithuanian food. All the different cultures would come and discuss their backgrounds on Sundays. They were still all here then.”

Dolly, I’ve always been both fascinated and appalled by stories about “The Patch.”

“When U.S. Steel decided to build this mill here, there was no city. There was an Aetna, Glen Park, Miller, Tolleston and a Clark that surrounded the area. In the middle was to be Gary. The area was just a bunch of weeds and sand. Judge Gary came in and said: ‘We need a building so we can start to plan things.’ ”

The Gary Land Co. building.

“Correct. It’s still standing and is Gary’s oldest building. It also has been reopened as a museum and visitors center.”

Reopened?

“Yes, the Gary Land Co. building was a museum before we got it. There was a historical society before us as well. It was called the Gary Historical Society. Everything was going fine, but when Richard Hatcher won that second term on his own, the people who had the museum took everything out of there.

“Jeff, some people think that all white people hate black people. Not true. There were whites who had stuff in that museum they wanted others to see. They were very upset when that group took everything away.”

Back to the fledgling days of the Steel City and the notorious Patch.

“U.S. Steel recruited in Europe because over there they had ironworkers and all those sturdy men.”

Kind of like today, where agribusiness hires sturdy men, women and children from south of the border to do the dirty work for less pay that Americans refuse to do. I digress. The Patch.

“Like I said, they recruited all these different ethnic groups to come over here and build the city. They’d introduce the immigrants to those from their cultures who were already here. They’d tell these tradesmen: ‘This man also is Croatian and he has a grocery store. This man speaks German like you and he has a bakery.’

“They decided that 5th & Broadway would be the main drag. They also decided it was going to be fancy, so they had a lot of theaters. By 1927, they had the Gary Hotel, which cost several million dollars to build. Yeah, they really thought they were going to have themselves a snazzy town.”

Even the best-laid plans ...

“They forgot the hoi polloi consisted of the lowly foreigner and blacks from the Deep South. Upper management thought when the workers finished building the city they’d leave. Where were they going to go?”

The Patch, perhaps?

“The Patch was an area near downtown.”

I knew I’d get it out of you.

“It started at about 10th Avenue and went to about 13th Avenue just past where the railroad goes over Broadway.”

That would’ve been the extreme southern end of Gary back in the day.

“Yes. There were no restrictions in The Patch. They could have a million bars and grills down there. There was all kinds of funny-looking housing down there. It was a terrible area — squalor and disease. Everything went on in The Patch. They had one saloon for every 10 people.”

Dolly, the GHCS is not your average historical society.

“Our mission is to enrich the lives of Gary’s citizens of all ages through programs that preserve and promote local history and culture, improve access to educational opportunities, teach respect for ethnic diversity, develop positive citizens, and promote Gary pride.”

***

I but scratched the surface regarding the incredible, selfless, nonagenarian Dolly Millender.

A person can learn a lot when he or she sits down and really listens to someone else’s point of view.



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