Wakefield: Classmate Lugar tells (almost) all


The return of Sen. Richard Lugar to help celebrate the naming of Dan Wakefield Park at 61st and Broadway gave real class to the occasion – and more humor than anyone expected who didn’t know him. With a healthy dose of self-deprecation, Lugar disclosed how I beat him out for the honor of giving the graduation address for the Shortridge class of 1950. What he didn’t mention was that at Shortridge in those days, the valedictorian was not the student with the highest grades in the class, but whoever won a speaking contest – in other words, the biggest ham. That would be me.

Lugar was also too kind to quote the opening line of my oration. I had vowed to compose the most original graduation speech on record. I imagined the review of my talk might begin “Not since Demosthenes. . .” I would tolerate no clichés; no outworn, tattered phrases! After staying up late for weeks composing on my Smith-Corona, I proudly stood before an audience of classmates and families in the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, and began with this gem of originality:

“Tonight, we have reached a milestone in our lives.”

Lugar failed to mention that he beat me out in the “I Speak for Democracy” contest. He placed first in Marion County while I was second. First prize was a television set – a rare and precious new space-age appliance in 1949. Dick invited me and some other classmates to his house to see this new wonder. Most of us, including me, had never seen a TV before. Dick turned it on, and before our very eyes we saw The Lone Ranger, riding across the screen on his great horse Silver. I went home and tried to enjoy my runner-up prize – a 45 rpm record player. I turned it on and tried to be comforted by the vice of Joni James singing “Let there be love,” but I was thinking “let there be light” because I couldn’t even see her.

Both of us held our own as we wrote our respective sports columns for The ShortridgeDaily Echo – his “Shooting the Works” was in the Tuesday paper, and my “Sportlite” appeared on Thursdays. We both were chosen to represent Shortridge at a high school journalism convention in French Lick, where Dick taught me how to play Gin Rummy. He beat me every time.

We corresponded after high school, and even after college. Dick was the main speaker at our 25th Shortridge reunion, which happened to be held the summer that Going All The Way was published. In his review of the book for Life magazine, Kurt Vonnegut predicted “Having written this book, Dan Wakefield will never be able to go back to Indianapolis. He will have to watch the 500-mile race on television.” From the initial hostile hometown reception, it seemed Vonnegut’s words would come true. I received one death threat, several pledges of men who vowed to come to Boston, where I was living at the time, and beat me up, and I was told of a woman who wailed that I had ruined her marriage (imagining she was one of the characters). My attempt to explain “fiction” fell on deaf ears.

I chickened out of coming to the reunion, but learned later that in a question/answer period after his speech, Lugar was asked if he had read my novel. “I received it in a plain brown wrapper,” he replied. That brought the house down.

I finally came back to live here in 2011 — just in time to vote for Lugar the following year. I didn’t announce my preference, not wanting to hurt his chances, but he lost anyway for the sin of reaching across the aisle to compromise and actually pass significant legislation, which is now a lost art. I shared in my own remarks at the park that during my freshman year in high school I informed me parents one night at dinner that there was a boy in our class who was going to be president. “Of your class?” my father asked. “No, of the country,” I said. It could have happened, and I wish it had. We’d be blessed if a candidate like Lugar were running today. And that’s no joke.

Read the original article on Indy Star’s website

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield

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