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Whether great or average, state's governors always interesting

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If walls could talk, the ones in Statehouse room 206 could tell quite a tale.

That’s the office of the governor, where the present occupant is packing up in preparation for a new job in West Lafayette.

Voters will soon select a new resident for 206. Whether it is Mike Pence, John Gregg, or Rupert Boneham, one thing is certain. He will be the 50th governor of Indiana.

Those who came before brought a wide variety of personalities to the office.

The first governor, Jonathan Jennings, got Indiana off to a solid start in 1816. Working in the first capitol at Corydon, he fought hard to keep slavery out of the state and pushed for the construction of roads and schools.

One of the most memorable chief executives came along three years after Jennings. James Brown Ray saw the move to the new capital of Indianapolis.

Gov. Ray had a dramatic bent. In 1825, three men were sentenced to hang for the murder of innocent native Americans. One of them was just a boy, and appeals went to the governor for a pardon. A large crowd was on hand in Pendleton where the execution was to take place.

As the trembling boy stood on the scaffold, spectators spotted a galloping horse coming up fast. Seated on the steed in his finest attire was the governor.

The horse stopped in front of the scaffold.

“Young man,” the rider said in a loud voice. “Do you know who now stands before you?”

“No, sir,” answered the frightened boy.

“Well, it is time you should know,” was the reply. “There are two beings in the great universe who can save you from death. One is the God of the Heaven and the other is James Brown Ray, governor of Indiana, who now stands before you. Go, sir, and sin no more.”

The boy was released and sent home.

Sometimes governors came and went rather quickly. There was a 100-day stretch before the Civil War when the state had four different chief executives.

It began in October of 1860 when Ashbel Willard died in office with just three months to go in his term. The lieutenant governor, Abram Hammond, served the remaining days. Then Henry Lane was elected governor. Within two days, the legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate, and Lt. Gov. Oliver P. Morton moved to the top spot.

Like Lincoln in Washington, Morton seemed to be just the right man for Indiana during the Civil War. He became something of a czar when the legislature shut down during most of the conflict. Morton had to finance the government privately, with a good deal of help from James Lanier in Madison.

For a large part of Indiana history, governors were limited to one term. The office changed hands every four years, and each term brought a different kind of person. There was James “Bluejeans” Williams, a farmer from Vincennes who wore bib overalls and denim suits. There was Alvin Hovey, who took the top office after serving on the Indiana Supreme Court. Two governors, Thomas Hendricks and Thomas Marshall, became vice presidents of the United States.

Franklin sent two men to the Statehouse as governor, Paul V. McNutt and Roger Branigin, who were born just a few blocks from each other.

Unlike Illinois, Indiana’s governors have been only lightly tainted by scandal. Only one went to prison. That was Warren McCray, who was convicted of mail fraud in 1924. Ed Jackson had close ties to the Ku Klux Klan but escaped prosecution.

For the most part, Indiana governors have been dedicated, hard-working and friendly. Henry Schricker, who managed to get elected to two non-consecutive terms, was known for his white hat and broad smile.

Edgar D. Whitcomb is today the oldest living governor. At age 95, his life story is the stuff novels are made of. Captured and held in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II, he made a daring escape that required an eight-hour swim in ocean currents.

After a life as a lawyer and a term as governor, he became what one newspaper described as “an adventurer.” At age 78, he sailed solo around the world. Just recently he arranged for the state to make a nature park out of his scenic 144 acres along the Ohio River in Perry County.

Indiana’s governors can be described as “great,” “near great,” “average,” or just plain “interesting.” We shall see what number 50 brings to Statehouse room 206.

James H. Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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