Skip to Main Content


Voices: Big John the River King

Printer-friendly version | Email this article
• Voices: On the Wabash

The few hours I spent with Big John taught me more about what it means to be a Hoosier than I could learn in any classroom.

—by Zach Webb ’08

IF YOU STOOD NEXT TO BIG JOHN IN A GROCERY STORE, youwould probably move away from him, a little weary of the smell. He hasn’t shaved in a long time and seems unaware that theiron has been invented.

But when Big John laughs, he smiles from ear to ear, and a bellow emerges that could shake the foundations of one of the mighty buildings on the Wabash campus. His stories, often lengthy, captivate the most unimaginative of people. He doesn’t need technology beyond the outboard motor of his jon boat. He is a man’s man, who loves to fish and go fast on the mighty Indiana river.

John and his family live on Busseron Creek (pronounced "BOOSe-roan Crick").We met Big John at the mouth of that creek after along day of paddling. He was standing there with a beer in his hand.

We asked if he knew a safe place to camp.

"Ya’ll can sleep here!" he said. As we set up camp, he offered tofeed us dinner. What followed was not a meal, but an education in life on the Wabash.

John is proud to be called a river rat, and most proud of his ability to navigate the ever-changing banks of the Wabash at night without his headlights on. He has dozens of stories about Asian carp and his fellow boaters, life on the river, and growing up there. I doubt that Big John graduated from high school, but he knows more about the river’s history than I could ever collect in the Lilly Library.

John doesn’t have much besides his boat, his family, and the river.But that’s enough for him. He’s one of the last good people on the planet. He knew nothing about me and my fellow travelers, yet hetook us in, fed us, shared his life with us.

I believe that every Wabash man should have some sort of immersion experience, whether overseas or on a river.We should have the chance to meet the Big Johns of the world. So that we can understand the people that we may one day serve. So that maybe we can, at thevery least, take a little bit of Big John with us and make the world abetter place.

Contact Homer Twigg at, and Zach Webb at

"Exploring the Wabash" was made possible by the Present Indiana portion of the College’s Quality of Life grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc.more about what it means to be a Hoosier than