On the Fourth of July I was working at my desk in the office, finishing up some things for the July 5 edition on one monitor while keeping close tabs on the weather radar on another, trying to gauge whether the approaching storm would get here before the start of the parade, basically whether I could avoid getting wet.
The telephone on my desk rang, and the caller was breathlessly offering The Sun-Commercial a scoop.
“Vincennes University has closed up!”
A woman was literally yelling the news, so loudly she might not have needed her phone to get her message out.
“What's that?” I replied. “What's that you say?”
“I just drove by and it's all closed down! They've boarded up the windows and locked the doors! And good riddance, too!”
I started to explain how the university was renovating certain of its buildings along Second Street, and what she was mistaking for evidence of its closure was, in fact, further proof of the continued vitality of Indiana's First College.
But she sounded just so happy about it all, so I decided to just let it go — and, too, you can't fix stupid, and there's no point in trying.
Ragging on Vincennes University is something of a cottage industry here, and I've never been able to understand why. There are 75 other cities in the state with populations over 10,000, and I'm willing to venture that every one of them, from Bluffton to Indianapolis, would welcome the opportunity to have what Vincennes has now in VU.
Here, however, a surprisingly large contingent sees the university as the source of all evil in the community.
The first conversation I had with Phil Rath was about why this was the case, and now, with Phil's death on Friday morning, it turns out that my last conversation (via text messaging) will have been on that same topic.
In the 18 years in between, I don't think we ever came up with a suitable answer. At least I couldn't.
I was asked the other day to sum up Phil Rath in one word, and while granted there are some who might choose a different (unprintable) word, my choice was “forthright.”
He was the most forthright man I've ever met. Not that his path toward the desired end was always straight, but it was always forward, always with the best interests of the university and the community as a whole in sight.
Phil cared about things, big and small, and he could be a nag sometimes. It was ironic that I learned of his passing while outside a bank, where I had an appointment to clear up some lingering financial issues — issues Phil had long ago pointed out as needing remedied ASAP.
Phil was bemused at what passed for my attempts at financial planning — and exasperated. He was always nagging me (and, for that matter, the state of Indiana) to get better at it — for my own sake.
“Geez, how can someone otherwise so smart be so dumb about these things,” he'd say, to which I'd plead the Fifth.
He cared about people, even most of those who, for one reason or another, opposed the university's plans for which Phil was invariably the point man.
He didn't court controversy, but as with any forthright man, controversy courted him.
Being opposite Phil Rath could certainly put one in an uncomfortable place, but even when most irritated by opposing arguments, it never became personal with him.
That wasn't always the case with those agin him, though; often, and for reasons that baffled me, they believed Phil took a particular delight in knocking down old houses — even when the houses, as any rational eye could plainly see, were definitely in need of knocking down.
Even as the clock was running out on him, controversy found Phil.
The city this week announced plans to rename Oliphant Drive as Rath Way, in part as recognition for his lead role in the restoration of Kimmell Park.
I would have preferred seeing that section of Chestnut Street running from Red Skelton Boulevard to Indianapolis Avenue be so designated. For if anything signaled the “Rath Way” it's those buildings along that street: the Van Eaton/Indiana Center for Applied Technology, the Aquatic Center, the Jefferson Union Student Center, the Technology Center/Ebner Residence Hall and of course Updike Hall.
That's a personal quibble.
No sooner had we published the city's intention than an email showed up, criticizing the move as improper, that removing the “historic name” of Oliphant from future city maps should be reconsidered and summarily voted down.
“Enough already,” the writer stated, adding that while a VU graduate she was “tired of the power [the university] wields here in my home town.”
With no offense intended to the family, I think most residents would hold that the name Oliphant may as well have been pulled from a hat for all its relevancy today.
And so it goes with such things.
I believe that in 50, 75 or 100 years from now, if someone should come along whose contributions exceeded his, Phil would have no problem seeing Rath Way renamed accordingly, giving recognition where recognition was due, because it would mean Vincennes University and the community were that much better off.
For that was Phil Rath's way.
Gayle R. Robbins is editor and publisher of The Sun-Commercial. He reads a lot, and is an admittedly bad birdwatcher. He can be reached at email@example.com.