The Many Sides of Middletown: Warren Vander Hill’s story as told to Jim Connolly
I had a bifurcated existence. I grew up in New York City, in the borough of Queens, during the 1950s. My father was a Dutch Reformed minister. I always used to laugh about the fact that I was a minority Protestant because the vast majority of my friends, people I played basketball with and against, were ethnic Italians, Germans, Irish, Jewish. Then, every summer, my dad being from Holland, Michigan, and my mother from Grand Haven, Michigan, we’d go back out there for a month. I would be re-immersed in the Dutch Calvinism of Southwest Michigan, going to church twice on Sunday, Bible Study, midweek prayer meetings, and things like that. And then I’d come back to all my friends who were in parochial schools or going to Torah study. It made me comfortable with different kinds of people and interested in how they lived. I didn’t know at that point that I would end up spending the vast majority of my life in Muncie, Indiana, the nation’s “Middletown.”
Family connections and basketball brought me to the Midwest. I was a very successful, highly sought after, high school basketball player, and I began college at the University of Maryland. I didn’t like it very much. The coach believed in a very slow-down, methodical way of playing and I was a product of your classic playgrounds. I came back and worked in New York and I was thinking of going to NYU to play there, but my father said, “Uh-uh, you’re going to Hope College, where your relatives can look after you.” So I went out there in the late 1950s to play. And then from Hope I went out to the University of Denver in the fall of 1960 for graduate study in American social history.
After finishing my coursework in Denver, I taught at Hope for a time before getting an offer to teach graduate courses at Ball State in 1968. I never aspired to be anything other than a history faculty member but pretty soon I was given the opportunity to be in charge of an honors program, and then to come over to work in the Administration Building. So, the two bookends, really, of my life at Ball State were spending 15 years in charge of the Honors College and then becoming Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. It was a serendipitous kind of thing. I found myself in positions where people gave me opportunities that I was willing to take and I enjoyed the jobs that I had.
When I first came to Muncie I got to know a lot of people by playing pickup basketball around town. I also met people through my wife, Joy. She spent almost all of her thirty-something years teaching elementary school on the south side of town. It’s been important for a lot of the research I’ve done to have her help me understand that part of Muncie’s life. I always refer to Joy as the person in our family who did the heavy lifting. She was teaching kids and watching their lives change—more single-parent families and growing numbers of kids on free lunch. All of the social and economic difficulties our community has faced, she dealt with them on a daily basis.
While I was working in the Honors College, I got involved in Middletown research, studying Muncie as a representative American community. A group of us put together a little booklet, Middletown Man: The Human Side of Life in Muncie, Indiana. Later we got a number of projects funded by the Indiana Committee for the Humanities. One of them was modeled on Studs Terkel’s book, Working, where we interviewed people doing all kinds of different jobs.
That’s important to me because the interviews I did on that project started something that’s been a lifelong thing for me here, asking people around here about their lives and their work. For Middletown Man, I talked to members of the Ball Family and other people in the local economic elite. The Working project got me into talking to people who were meat cutters and working on the assembly line, and things like that. Since then, I’ve done oral history projects about religion, education, unions, and business in Muncie. Every one of the interviews I’ve done I’ve learned something from them, whether it’s talking to faith community leaders over the last two years, or going back to the 1970s and talking to assembly-line workers or meat cutters, I’ve always come away from them learning something. I’m genuinely interested in what they do. What’s it really like spending eight hours a day working on building transfer cases at Warner Gear or working on batteries on the assembly line at Delco. I gained a sense of respect and appreciation from talking to people whose experiences are so different from mine. Almost to a person, they’re pretty proud of what they do. The meat cutters I talked to didn’t just go in there whacking away at the lamb chops. They were very proud of the fact that they had learned how to do this. And in most cases, they were doing things that I couldn’t do or I wouldn’t have done. So, I always approached these people with a sense of “I’m really interested in what you’re doing.”
Since retirement, I’ve spent almost fifteen years documenting how Muncie has changed and the ways people have experienced those changes. I’ve had an opportunity to take an up close and personal look at some of the people whose experiences can help us understand what’s going on here. And that’s been a very important part of my life. I can’t imagine the idea that I’d retire and go play shuffleboard. What’s been wonderful for me is this kind of third part, or third act, of my career where I’ve been involved in all these oral history projects. I’ve interviewed people from all kinds of backgrounds and all kinds of experiences and created new connections by talking to these people. And in all the time I’ve been doing this, I don’t think anyone has ever turned me down. The big thing I’ve learned is that people really appreciate it when you come to them and tell them that what they do matters, that their story is important, and that we can help them share it.
Warren Vander Hill is Provost Emeritus of Ball State University.
Jim Connolly is the Director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University.