Quayle museum has some, er, spellbound

People in hometown take center seriously

July 09, 2002|By Mike Conklin | Mike Conklin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HUNTINGTON, Ind. - Dan Johns, executive director of the Dan Quayle museum, leaned closer to a display case to check a fact that had eluded him. "Let's see, now," he said, a furrow suddenly creasing his forehead, his voice growing solemn.

"Did the potato thing come first, and then it was Murphy Brown, or was it Murphy Brown, and then the potato thing? I know they were very close. Ah, yes. Here it is. Murphy Brown first, then potato."

Or p-o-t-a-t-o-e, as Quayle once spelled it in the presence of a group of disbelieving grammar school students.

Understandably, reviewing the ex-vice president's jousts with the English language, not to mention the speculation about his IQ that once was a cottage industry among media types - is not Johns' favorite part of the job. "It's been a process," he acknowledges.

But now, 10 years after it opened its doors here in Quayle's hometown, much of the laughter over the museum ("What! No indoor driving range?") has died down, and the first institution dedicated to a living American vice president - officially called The Quayle Center, Home of the American Vice Presidency Museum - is doing quite nicely.

Want to see Quayle's law school diploma, which was chewed up by the family dog? His Little League uniform? Pictures of him in grammar school and at summer Bible camp? His (gulp) report cards? Everything is there, along with the more important memorabilia of his career in office.

The key to the museum's success, in what may seem an unlikely strategy considering the former veep's spelling woes, has been educational outreach.

Because of it, attendance is climbing and expansion of the facility is on the horizon. Quayle museum officials have followed their hero's own philosophy of progress, which he once expressed to a group of Chicago school kids: "We will move forward, we will move upward, and, yes, we will move onward."

Take your pick in this case.

The museum, housed in an old Christian Science church, drew an all-time high of 4,400 visitors in 2001. With the new summer season barely under way, Johns said the count is about 1,000 ahead of last year's pace.

Furthermore, an adjacent house has been purchased with the intention of razing it to build an auditorium to accommodate more programming.

"We're just starting to get the senior bus trips, too, and that should be a big plus for us," said Richard Poole, a board member.

Huntington, population 16,000, is some 160 miles southeast of Chicago, on the border of the picturesque lake country of northeast Indiana.

The city is bisected by State Road 9, known as the Highway of Vice Presidents. Indiana produced five vice presidents, including three who lived along the road: Schuyler Colfax (who understudied Ulysses S. Grant), Thomas Marshall (Woodrow Wilson), and Quayle (the elder George Bush). The other Indiana veeps were Thomas Hendricks (Grover Cleveland) and Charles Fairbanks (Theodore Roosevelt).

Rose Meldrum, executive director of the Huntington County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the museum has become an important destination in a county known for its homespun attractions, such as "Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival" and the "Ole Gray Barn Craft & Antique Show."

"It can only get more important as time passes," she said. "How many communities can say they were the hometown of a vice president?"

None of Quayle's family lives in Huntington anymore. The 55-year-old ex-veep resides in the Phoenix area with his wife, Marilyn, and their three children. He is, however, expected to come to Huntington this summer for the museum's annual golf fund-raiser, which pays for about half of the museum's budget.

Though born in Indianapolis, Quayle moved here as a baby. His father ran the local Huntington Herald-Press for his father-in-law, newspaper magnate Eugene Pulliam Sr.

After the future politician finished second grade, Quayle's dad moved the family to Arizona to go to work for the family newspapers there. Dan completed his last two years of high school in Huntington when his father returned to the Herald-Press.

Upon graduation from DePauw University and Indiana University's law school, Quayle opened a practice in Huntington with his wife (their law office shingle is in the museum) before entering politics.

His meteoric climb saw him elected to the U.S. House at age 29 and the U.S. Senate at 33. He was only 41 when Bush picked him for vice president in 1988.

"One of the first things I did after it was clear Dan and Mr. Bush were going to win was drive to Paducah, Ky., to see what they did with their Alben Barkley museum," said Poole. Barkley was vice president under Harry Truman. "The one thing I was told: Start saving stuff right now. We did."

At first, while Quayle was still in office, a few items were put on display in the Huntington Public Library.

Head librarian Kathy Holst, a Democrat, said that even she was surprised by the response.

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