2017 Howard County Hall of Legends08/25/2017
The selection committee for the Howard County Hall of Legends must have been thinking as much about the future as the past: their 2017 nominees share a commitment to coming generations. In addition to choosing 6 new Legends, the committee made a significant decision to expand nominations beyond individuals and include organizations which have had important and lasting effects.
left to right: Alicia Berneche, Circus John Byers, Virgil Hunt, Sam Rhine, Marilyn Skinner, and We Care
This is the eighth year for the Howard County Historical Society’s Hall of Legends. Since 2010, 43 Legends have been honored for their accomplishments. Among them are author Norman Bridwell, automotive pioneers Elwood Haynes and Jonathan Dixon Maxwell, country music performer Sylvia Hutton, journalists Steve Kroft and Jane King, and acclaimed artist Misch Kohn (a complete list is available at howardcountymuseum.org). The nominees this year are entirely consistent with the goal of the Legends: to provide our young people with role models and examples of character traits that engender success and contribute to a better world.
The 2017 class of Legends will be honored at the annual induction banquet on August 25th at Bel Air Events in Kokomo. Tickets are on sale now at Eventbrite, at the HCHS office at 1218 W. Sycamore in Kokomo, or by phone at 765-452-4314.
St. Vincent Kokomo, Indiana University Kokomo, Kokomo Tribune
Ivy Tech, Salin Bank
Performers, like athletes, practice unceasingly, preparing themselves for that chance-of-a-lifetime moment to dazzle an audience and “hit one out of the park.”
In the summer of 2000, Alicia Berneche was fresh from graduate school at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and working in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s apprentice program when that moment came for her. She was selected as the understudy for Grammy-Award-winning American Soprano Dawn Upshaw starring as Daisy Buchanan in the Lyric Opera run of “The Great Gatsby.” When Upshaw was sidelined with a bruised vocal cord, Berneche, a 1989 graduate of Kokomo High School, was suddenly in the spotlight. It was a tricky, demanding role at arguably the second most-important opera house in the United States (after the Metropolitan Opera in New York).
Her performance was a home run -- the Chicago Sun-Times enthusiastically praised “her bright, clear soprano” while the Boston Globe called her out for “an extraordinary piece of acting.” Careers in the performing arts are built on such moments.
Berneche, who earned a bachelor’s degree in music at DePauw University in 1993, started working toward success at an early age. At 6, she was a violinist in the Kokomo Youth Symphony. In her teens she won best actress for her role as Molly Ralston in Kokomo Civic Theatre’s production of “The Mousetrap” and was the first female ever to represent the Kokomo High School Speech Team in national competitions. But the encouragement of a voice coach in high school helped her find a home for her twin loves of music and acting -- in the world of opera.
International acclaim for her Chicago debut was followed in 2002 by the world premiere of “Galileo Galilei” in New York and London (the New York Times said an aria by Berneche was “sung affectingly”). She has since worked steadily and successfully and sung with celebrated conductors and ensembles at many of the world’s top houses. Classically trained in the standard repertoire of opera, Berneche specializes in contemporary opera (she even recently wrote the libretto for a modern work). With a commitment to preparing the next generation of specialists in her art form, Berneche now teaches voice at Glenbrook North High School in Illinois and tutors local and international singers at a private studio in Chicago.
"Circus John" Byers
It was a rite of passage for generations of Kokomo youth. “Spring is here. It’s official now” was the annual announcement in Kokomo newspapers in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. “Circus John” Byers was once again organizing local baseball teams to compete in area amateur and semi-pro leagues. With winter in the past, he could be seen canvassing store owners in the business district, raising money for equipment and uniforms.
Talented and gifted, Byers – who once was described by the Kokomo Tribune as “one of the most legendary individuals ever to live in Kokomo” -- was born in Tennessee probably around 1870. He arrived in Kokomo twice, in 1919 and again, for good, in the mid-1920s (circus work had brought him to Peru, hence the nickname).
Farmhand, steamboat sailor, railroad "Road Man," Wild West Show performer, journeyman ball player -- at a time when people rarely saw much beyond their hometowns, Byers spent most of his early life on the road.
For several decades after settling in Howard County, he organized, managed, and often played for a number of local teams, including the well-known Kokomo Specials and the eponymous “Circus” Giants in the 1920s and ‘30s. Byers had prowess at every position. He once pitched a no-hitter; in another game, his home runs fueled a 19-6 blowout.
But his legend came from the league play (ages 9 to 21) and informal baseball clinics he offered for boys at Foster Park to keep them busy during the summer months. He became known as the father of youth baseball in Kokomo. Stern but devoted, he set strict ground rules for “his kids” – no smoking, no profanity, be on time, play fair. Still, many who played for him later remembered that he taught the kids to “have fun,” and as someone who brought a lot of joy to children of Kokomo for many years.
Even late in life, Kokomo’s “Mr. Baseball” continued to make a difference, including serving as an advisor for a girls’ volleyball and soccer league. Regardless of the sport, he was always willing to share his wisdom or offer encouragement. He died in 1960, probably aged 90. He was buried in Crown Point Cemetery … reportedly in his baseball uniform.
When the new science building on the campus of Indiana University Kokomo was dedicated in 2002, its title was an apt honor for its namesake’s decades-long commitment and contribution. “Virgil and Elizabeth Hunt Hall” was a fitting tribute to the man whose vision and leadership helped IU Kokomo grow from a handful of students crowded into an all-but-abandoned Victorian mansion to its modern 51-acre campus with more than 4,000 students.
Among the most distinguished academic leaders ever associated with Indiana University, Virgil Hunt was a visionary and influential educator. The “founding father” of IU Kokomo served as the first campus director from 1945-56, then moved to IU Indianapolis to become dean. In 1966, he was named the first registrar of the Indiana University Medical Center. He retired from that post in 1976, ending a 43-year career in higher education, and 33 years with Indiana University.
A native Hoosier, Hunt earned bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from Indiana University in the early 1930s. He taught chemistry and science at colleges in Arizona, Kentucky and Danville, Ind., and at Central Normal College in Danville from 1940-43 became the youngest college president in the United States at the age of 28. During World War II, Hunt served as a physics instructor for the Army and Navy.
Anticipating the need to provide higher education opportunities for GIs after the war, Indiana University adopted Kokomo Junior College as an IU extension center in 1945, and appointed Hunt as the center's first executive secretary (later director). Hunt helped to enroll a group of Jewish students who had been denied admission to other colleges, and later as director recruited the campus's first African-American student and one of IU's first African-American faculty members (fellow Hall of Legends member Dr. Herbert Miller).
Hunt was devoted to fundraising, campus expansion, donor support, and student recruitment. In addition to academics, the legacy of Hunt, his wife and their family is reflected in a number of awards and endowments. Among many honors he received were the Sagamore of the Wabash, the Jefferson Award, and the Central Indiana Older Hoosier of the Year for his civic involvement. He was a Congressional appointee to the White House Conference on Aging. He was 92 when died June 8, 2004.
Sam Rhine is a college professor from Howard County, Indiana, whose knowledge of his subject routinely generates standing-room-only audiences eager to hear him speak in locations around the world – from Toronto to Tokyo, Prague to Nairobi. He has filled auditoriums and assembly halls and is repeatedly invited back. He even receives what amounts to “fan mail” from enthralled and inspired students -- and their parents -- who appreciate his common-sense approach and lucid lectures.
What subject rivets the listeners of this 1964 Western High School graduate? Artificial intelligence? Self-driving cars? Some other trending topic? Nope. Sam Rhine’s passion is the science of biology.
After earning a master’s degree from Indiana University in 1972, Rhine learned early on that biology, when properly presented, can be easily grasped in a real-world context. As a graduate student at IU and later at Harvard University, he discovered that high school students became receptive and responsive when real life issues were explored through the filter of biology. He eventually was presenting whole-school convocations to hundreds of students on two main topics: prevention of birth defects ("The Most Important Nine Months of Your Life") and prevention of AIDS ("Say 'Know' to AIDS”).
Most recently, the long-time IU professor has focused on Genetic Update Conferences (GUCs), one-day events for biology teachers and students that present the latest in genetic advances, research areas, and career opportunities. A sample of the seminar reactions: “(A)bsolutely amazed me”; “We are still using class time to discuss the various topics you covered and are they engaged!”; “Thank you for inspiring my son!"
Rhine is notably well-regarded among peers; one education expert even described him as "one of the most effective human genetics educators in America today.”
After 30-plus years teaching, two honors exemplify his standing in his field. In November 1997, Rhine received the “Honorary Member Award” from the National Association of Biology Teachers, which is presented to one teacher annually as the "highest honor we bestow on members of our profession.” In February 2007, he received the exclusive “Distinguished Hoosier Scholar Award” from the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers Inc., which honors native Hoosiers for outstanding commitment to science education and has only been given three times in the association’s 40-year history.
Sam and his wife of 46 years live in Fishers. They have two children and eight grandchildren.
When Marilyn Skinner received Indiana’s most prestigious state honor -- the Sagamore of the Wabash – in 2013, it was a fitting milestone for a remarkable teacher and community volunteer who has devoted so much of her life to helping children prepare for success.
An advocate for early childhood development since starting her career as a teacher at Kokomo's Bon Air Elementary School in 1958, Skinner was soon learning to adapt to leadership roles herself. Moving from the classroom to administration, she became the first woman ever to serve as assistant principal, principal, and then assistant superintendent in the Kokomo public school system for 15 years before her retirement in 1996.
Kokomo-area students indeed benefited from her inspired dedication, and then new generations of students continued to benefit when the newly retired educator “failed at retirement” as she put it.
She started working again part-time with the Head Start program, which promotes school readiness of children under age 5. She then supervised student teachers for Indiana University; Purdue University; Ball State University, and Manchester College, before deciding it was time to "really retire." With a laugh, she admits she failed at it again.
She soon was back at work, serving as the first director of Indiana University Kokomo’s Center for Early Childhood Education, while staying visible as a volunteer, serving as board member and then president of the Howard County Mental Health Association, and helped United Way exceed its campaign fund-raising goal the year she served as campaign chair.
A longtime community and arts patron, Skinner has been involved in some capacity with many local agencies and organizations, ranging from the Salvation Army to the Howard County Community Foundation to Bona Vista Programs to the Kokomo Area Reading Council. She is a past president of the Howard County Historical Society.
Skinner earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Ball State University and a doctorate in education from Indiana University. Her many honors include The Indiana Commission for Women’s Torchbearer Award, and the Indiana Women of Achievement Award for Distinction in Early Childhood Education from the College of Sciences and Humanities at Ball State University.
The story of We Care has near-legend status in Kokomo and Howard County, and the organization’s success has led to national recognition and imitation.
We Care began as a spontaneous, grass-roots response to economic hard times. The recession that began in 1973 was particularly difficult for industrial towns like Kokomo. Shortly before Christmas that year, a laid-off autoworker called a talk radio program on WWKI to talk about his situation, wondering how he could provide a happy Christmas for his family under the circumstances. One of the broadcasters, Dick Bronson, offered to donate half the money in his wallet if others in the radio audience would do likewise. By the end of the program, enough money had been donated to help the caller and several other families.
Under the leadership of Bronson, his radio co-host Charlie Cropper, and volunteer Jan Buechler, the We Care coordinator, the fund-raising effort was repeated in 1974 as a 6-hour telethon, and then expanded to a 47-hour auction the following year. We Care was given independent status as a 501(c)3 in 1983. The We Care Trim-A-Tree festival and tree auction were added, along with the We Care Store and a line of collectibles and food items. Hundreds of dedicated volunteers come together each year, with thousands of donors, to continue the tradition, organizing activities, managing donations, answering phones, working the store, and handling the details of a high-intensity marathon auction. Many other individuals and organizations held independent fundraisers, such as We Care Park, adding thousands of dollars to the annual total. Proceeds reached a peak of $857,500 in 2002, and the average in recent years has been $400,000-$450,000. The money is divided between five local social service organizations to support their Christmas programs.
In 1985, We Care received the first of three C-Flag volunteerism awards from President Ronald Reagan under his program of Presidential Citations for Private Sector Initiatives. Other awards followed, both for the organization and its founders.
Leadership of We Care has passed from the hands of Cropper, Buechler and Bronson to a core group of long-time volunteers, presently presided over by Becky Varnell. To this day, it remains dedicated to providing for needy children at Christmas.