James Whitcomb Riley – the very name that graces the children’s’ hospital, rolls off the tongue of Dr. Richard Gunderman like he’s his next-door neighbor. Eli Lilly? He could be Gunderman’s local pharmacist. Gene Stratton-Porter? She could be a volunteer reading to children in Riley Hospital’s Child Life Zone.
Gunderman talks of these famous Hoosiers and more as if they are part of his inner circle. And by some standards, they may as well be.
A graduate of Wabash College and the University of Chicago, Gunderman’s roots are buried deep in Midwest soil. So much so that he is passionate about keeping his Hoosier history alive.
He spent about 20 hours each researching and writing about 32 noted Hoosiers. Each one was profiled in a guest column for the Indianapolis Business Journal as part of our state’s Bicentennial celebration. The editors liked the stories so much that they suggested compiling them into a book: “Hoosier Beacons” (available from Amazon for $14.99). All but one profile – Indiana’s 44th Governor Otis Bowen – can be found in the book, along with two pages of Hoosier trivia that includes such questions as “Which Hoosier Beacon earned his medical degree from Indiana University?” and “Which Hoosier Beacon held the speed record for travel by a civilian in a supersonic jet?”
“I’m a product of Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) and one of my hopes is that this book will be important for fourth graders who study Indiana history,” said Gunderman, who is Chancellor’s Professor in the Schools of Medicine, Liberal Arts and Philanthropy at Indiana University and has received the IU Trustee Teaching Award 10 times. He has practiced medicine at Riley Hospital since 1997. In 2012 he was elected to the IPS Hall of Fame.
Arranged by alphabetical order in the 71-page paperback, the Hoosier Beacons range in history from 1768, the year Tecumseh was born to 2009 – the year of Michael Jackson’s death.
Gunderman isn’t quite sure how he selected the 32 personalities, but he soon learned several were connected.
“In the course or reading about one person you’d stumble across another,” said Gunderman, who visited both of James Whitcomb Riley’s homes in Lockerbie Square and Greenfield, Ind. to research the life of the poet. “Few people know that before he made it big as a writer, Riley worked for a sign company with one of the best Hoosier painters, T.C. Steele,” said Gunderman. “And few people know that Steele went to Germany to study art because of the (Richard) Lieber family.” Both the Hoosier painter who received his inspiration from nature, and Lieber, credited for creating the state park system, are featured in Gunderman’s book.
“The connections in history - the tapestry - is more interesting than any single person,” said Gunderman, who is married and the father to three boys and a girl. “I’ve come to believe if we don’t develop an appreciation of where we’ve come from, it’s hard to know where we are going over the course of the future.”
He speaks of each subject with the enthusiasm of a scientist who has just made a new discovery.
“Did you know that Hoagie Carmichael went to IU School of Law and ended up writing ‘Stardust,’ one of the most recorded songs in history? How did this happen? And Ian Fleming who invented James Bond says twice in two different James Bond novels that Bond most resembles Indiana’s own Hoagie Carmichael,” says Gunderman.
“I really hope that some people will read about these beacons and be inspired - like the greatest coach in the history of sports, Hoosier John Wooden who thought of himself more as a teacher than a coach,” said Gunderman. “His message to his players was about life.”
Even though he loves researching notable figures from the past, you won’t find Gunderman tuning into the History Channel or the National Geographic network. He doesn’t own a TV. Instead, he carries piles of books in his backpack - Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, an anthology of short stories and poems “On Doctoring” by Richard Reynolds and John Stone, “The Death of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs and Dorothy Day’s autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.”
“I read a lot. Many times these kinds of resources just languish on a bookshelf collecting dust,” said Gunderman, who has published 600 scholarly articles and 10 books. “I’ve come to the conviction that there are ideas in these books and ideas matter. If our idea diet is equivalent to junk food then it will take a toll on our minds.”
So what’s next for this doctor and writer – who is leaving his footprint on the medical side of Hoosier History?
He talks about 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reform, and the recent 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and then he thinks about his own research.
“Well, I only wrote about 32 Hoosier Beacons and Otis Bowen didn’t make it in the book so I think there’s a lot more to be done,” said Gunderman. “It would be very easy to come up with another 32 Hoosiers who have made an impact on Indiana. The legacy of this state is much richer than people realize.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.