"It was a frantic and frightening time in our life together, but people in this community reached out and comforted me in a way I never thought was possible."


Winter/Spring 2002

Turning Point
Confessions of a Townie

by Jim Amidon ’87


Like most freshmen at Wabash, I hated townies. My first day on campus, I stood on my fraternity’s porch and shouted at the townies cruising Grant Avenue in their jacked-up Monte Carlos. I don’t know why I hated them, but everyone in the house took part. There was something oddly primal about standing there as a fraternity, us against them, and taking on the red neck locals from the safety of our numbers. We even mocked the fraternities at Wabash who dared to rush townies into their pledge classes.

“Must want a nearby place to stay on walk out,” we would grumble.

In my sophomore year I came face to face with the same people I’d been berating. I took a part-time job at a local radio station covering high school sports—a job that required me to attend events like the canoe race and the Strawberry Festival. I also collected the police blotter. Crawfordsville radio gets big advertising revenue broadcasting the names of everyone arrested or given a speeding ticket. Seeing the number of arrests for bar fights, theft, and other violence did nothing to change the perceptions handed to me by the upperclassmen in my fraternity.

But my job did dilute the hate into something more manageable. I could work with townies; I just didn’t want to be one.

Almost 20 years later, I am one. I am a chest-out-proud townie!

At the same time, as my work for Wabash has put me in touch with local leaders, I’ve learned that many residents have the same negative opinions of Wabash students our students have toward them. Now that I’m in a position to do something about it, I’ve made improving the town-gown relationship among my highest priorities.

TWO EVENTS CHANGED MY PERCEPTION OF CRAWFORDSVILLE. The first came two years ago, when I had surgery for bladder cancer. Chris and I, parents of an eight month-old at the time, were paralyzed with fear and doubt. But we were blessed by an outpouring of kind notes, flowers, gifts, and meals from literally hundreds of people, half of whom I had never met. I was included in prayer chains at churches I’d barely noticed before I got sick. People I’d never even seen before would stop me in the street to wish me well or ask how I was doing.

It was a frantic and frightening time in our life together, but people in this community reached out and comforted me in a way I never thought was possible. I gained a healthy and timely dose of respect for my Crawfordsville neighbors.

Coinciding with my diagnosis was some deadline-pressing work with the county’s economic development group. Community leaders had seen Wabash’s campaign video and tapped me as a resource to produce a video that would sell Montgomery County to business, industry, and developers. What a remarkable acknowledgement that was—not of my production ability, but that people from the College could be trusted to portray the county as economically viable, even vibrant.

That experience radically changed the way I look at the people and this town.
With video crew in tow, I walked into the Nucor Steel Company in the southern part of Montgomery County on a snowy day. Plant manager John Ferriola gave us access to the entire sprawling complex. We learned that Nucor is the world’s largest recycler of steel, and that the company takes the scrap—by semi and rail car—and transforms it into high quality, flat rolled steel.

We donned heavy, fireproof coats and hard hats and for the next three hours I was immersed in the steel making process—the size, scale, smell, heat, and raw power of turning scrap into liquid, then into hardened steel again.

The factory alone is the size of a dozen indoor football practice fields. Vats the size of a Wabash lecture room contain tons of liquefied steel that explode with a deafening roar. What looked like hundreds of tiny sparks were actually wads of molten steel flying through the air and landing on our feet. As the vats finished cooking, workers moved them via remote control across the top of the factory to be poured and extruded into the final product. I had heard stories of accidental deaths at Nucor. With tons of molten steel hanging above us, I realized exactly how dangerous this work is. I understood how high-tech and precise the process is, how each worker depends on the skill of the other, and how essential it is that they trust one another.

Watching the bright orange liquid being poured into the extruder was a fantastic sight. Watching the extruder kick out the steel was even better. We stood on a cat walk just four feet above the rollers as the barely solid steel, 30 inches wide and three millimeters thick, raced under our feet at 60 miles an hour. Orange faded to dull gray as water was sprayed on the flying steel, a huge coiling machine at the far end of the factory winding it up in mile-long batches. The steam created from the collision of scorching heat water brought our video production to a halt.

“What’s one of those rolls weigh?” I shouted to the guy walking us through the factory.

“Forty-seven thousand pounds.”

“What do you get for one of those rolls?”

“About $50 grand.”

“And how many can you produce in a day?”

“A lot.”

This guy was not the beer-guzzling, wife-beating, country music-loving red neck I had once imagined he and every other local factory worker to be from my days of reading the police blotter. He was highly skilled, courageous, and concerned about his safety and ours. He was also very proud of his industry and his employer.

Nucor, it turns out, has 530 local employees who produce two million tons of steel each year netting over $750 million in annual revenue on a payroll of $35 million. That day, I learned that the biggest recycler in the world and the nation’s second leading producer of steel is in my back yard.

Two questions lingered in my mind: “Why doesn’t Wabash know more about its corporate and civic neighbors?” and “Why aren’t we forming useful partnerships that would benefit our students and better prepare them to go off and assume leadership roles in communities like this one?”

The experience of shooting the video and learning about Nucor—and other industries in Crawfordsville—made me aware of the abundant resources of this community. I’d always seen Wabash as the jewel of the county. I think now I could make an argument that we’re one of many jewels in a crown which includes Nucor, Pace Dairy, Random House Publishing, Fleetwood Travel Trailers, Raybestos Products, Crown Cork and Seal, and R.R. Donnelley & Sons. These companies produce groundbreaking, tangible products that put Montgomery County on an international map.

What I’ve really learned, though, is that this town, like Wabash, is about people who care for one another and who are good at what they do. I’ve spent my entire working life at Wabash College, and the people I’ve admired have been professors, coaches, and college administrators. Now I also look up to the men and women who make this town thrive.

The people of Crawfordsville have provided clarity in my life and a new focus for my work. I’m committed to the notion of being a good neighbor. I also want to work with faculty and staff to help our students realize Wabash isn’t the only fish, and certainly isn’t the biggest fish, in this pond. By doing so, we’ll help Wabash men treat their fleeting time in Montgomery County very differently and make them better citizens of the communities in which they will live out their lives. And, in the end, the students might just act a bit more responsibly, lead a bit more effectively, and, perhaps, live more humanely.

Jim Amidon is director of public affairs at Wabash.

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