Manes: What’s on the mind of a mayor ...
BY JEFF MANES email@example.com July 18, 2014 11:52AM
The Ritz Cinema sits along one of Rensselaer's brick streets. | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 21, 2014 6:14AM
“There ain’t any finer folks living than a Republican that votes the Democratic ticket.”
— Will Rogers
I know, I just used the above quote a couple of weeks ago. But it seemed like the perfect fit to go with Stephen Wood’s interview. He’s the mayor of Rensselaer.
I was recently introduced to Wood at the J.C. Cruiser car show in Rensselaer. Lo and behold, the mayor reads me religiously and proved it by rattling off some of his favorite columns that I’ve written through the years.
Wood, 69 — who looks 55 — and his wife Donna have raised three children who now are adults.
So, you subscribe to the Post-Tribune. Hmm. You wouldn’t happen to be a —
“Yes, I’m one of Rensselaer’s three Democrats,” he said. “I’ve taken the Post-Tribune for years. I really enjoyed the older gentleman who just passed away. I liked how he reminisced about how he did things back in the day. I read him every Sunday. He was good.”
Carrol Vertrees was my favorite columnist, too. He had a wry sense of humor similar to Mark Twain’s.
“I’m a big newspaper guy. I also take the (Lafayette) Journal & Courier and the Rensselaer Republican.”
I’ve been told that because of where Rensselaer is located, the town gets one of the widest varieties of newspapers in the country — papers ranging from Chicago to Indianapolis.
Let’s back up a bit. College?
“Hartnell, near the Salinas-Monterey area (California). It’s a two-year college.”
Mayor, most westerns are shot in places like Dodge City, Tombstone, Waco or Abilene. But one of my all-time favorite oaters took place in that part of California where you went to school. It’s called —
“ ‘One-Eyed Jacks,’ starring Marlon Brando. The film also included an excellent supporting cast featuring the likes of Karl Malden, Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson.”
A Dem and a movie buff. Heck, if I lived in Rensselaer, I’d vote for you. Were you in the service?
“I did my six months active duty in the Indiana National Guard at Fort Jackson, S.C. As a matter of fact, I was just there a few months ago. I hardly recognized the place. My nephew is a full-bird colonel there and was getting ready to go to Afghanistan. I also served in the U.S. Army Reserves at Fort Ord in California. That was in ’67 and ’68.”
College kept you out of Vietnam.
“Yes. But I wasn’t like Dick Cheney with four or five deferments. I’m a member of the American Legion and a former commander of Post 29. I can’t hold a political office and be an officer in the American Legion. It’s part of the bylaws. I’m also a charter member of the Moose Lodge here in town.”
You’ve served as mayor more than once.
“I served out a term as mayor in the early ’80s. Then I ran in ’88 and won on Election Night. The guy I beat was an incumbent. They filed for a recount claiming I started out on the machine with eight votes. I ended up losing by one vote.”
What did you do then?
“Went to work for (the Indiana Department of Transportation) under Evan Bayh, who was governor at the time. I did get elected in ’91. In ’95, I ran for re-election. I won that election by three votes.”
A real nail-biter.
“They filed for a recount that time as well.”
“I ended up losing by one vote again. The same judge did both recounts.”
Do you want that in your story?
“Sure. It was Judge McGraw. It’s all part of Jasper County history. I lived through it. That time, I went to work for (former Gov. Frank) O’Bannon until (former Gov.) Mitch (Daniels) got in. They play the game.
“Jeff, I’ve always enjoyed public service and have never had a problem with the public. That’s why I can come back and get elected in such a Republican area.”
If it wasn’t for the two recounts, you would’ve served five terms as Rensselaer’s mayor.
You’ve probably met Congressman Pete Visclosky.
“Yes, he used to represent this area and he did a real good job. After this last election, the Legislature redistricted. We lost Pete as our congressman. In the short time he was here, Visclosky helped us get some things we don’t usually get down here.”
I like Rensselaer with its nostalgic bricked streets, courthouse and old downtown district. The Ritz theater is a real blast from the past.
“We used to have two theaters in town when I was a kid. The other one was the Palace theater. We’d throw stuff off the balcony.”
Tell me about Rensselaer today.
“We have our own water, sewage, garbage pickup and parks department. Rensselaer also owns all of its utilities and we do some generation of electricity with gas and diesel engines. We belong to (the Indiana Municipal Power Agency). Our wholesale power comes through them. Our rates are a little cheaper than REMC (an electric cooperative) and much cheaper than NIPSCO.
“There are 59 communities in Indiana that have formed what they call a joint service agency — IMPA. We own percentages of coal-fired plants. Rensselaer was one of the first ones to join.”
How old is Rensselaer?
“We celebrated our centennial in 1996, so we’ve been around 118 years. Our population is about 6,000. You can add another 1,000 or so when students are attending St. Joseph’s College.”
Rensselaer High School has produced some good football teams through the years.
“Yes they have. I bought last year’s team breakfast before they headed off for semi-state competition.”
Other accomplishments while you’ve been mayor?
“In ’92 to ’93, we built the industrial park. We worked in conjunction with St. Joe on that. During this term, I’m going to finish up a road out there. I’ve cured a few drainage issues on the north side of town ... ”
After the judging has ceased at the car show, 150 or so contestants and members of the J.C. Cruisers meander through the streets of Rensselaer in parade-like fashion. I rode in my lady friend’s street rod, a ’34 Plymouth. Police officers take care of traffic control while townsfolk sit in lawn chairs near the curbs.
In one particular portion of the parade, the classic automobiles nearly come to a stop. Not too many lawn chairs are set up along the curb in front Rensselaer Care Center. Wheelchairs, mostly.
The Cruisers wave to their ancient audience. They honk their “ahooga” horns for them. Seeing the wistful smiles and wide eyes of the old folks as they nod their heads in remembrance of the DeSotos and Studebakers of their past is something I won’t soon forget.
The mayor has every right to be proud of his hometown and its citizens.
No finer folks living.