News and Tribune


January 22, 2014

HOWEY: Empathy, challenge from Gov. Pence via Mt. Baldy

INDIANAPOLIS — One of the most unique places in Indiana is Mount Baldy on the southern rim of Lake Michigan.

In a state with no mountains and Southern Indiana ridges that rise only 1,000 feet above sea level, Mount Baldy is conspicuous as a rounded sand dune towering over the Michigan City harbor. This is my hometown, and as a child, climbing Mount Baldy and rolling down through the squeaky white sand was a summer ritual and one enjoyed by other kids growing up there, like Scott Pelath, Don Larsen and John G. Roberts.

It became a generational thing when I would take my two sons up to the top where a lesson would be taught. To the east was Michigan City and Long Beach. To the west was the Chicago skyline and Gary's steel mills. Looking north, there was 380 miles of fresh water sea stretching all the way to Manistique, Mich. This was a view of “freedom and unparalleled opportunity, adventure and danger.”

To the south was the Indiana State Penitentiary, a massive Civil War era chamber of punishment, assault and despair. If you happened to have been atop Mount Baldy on Sept. 26, 1933, you might have heard the pops of a gun battle as John Dillinger sprang his gang.

To my sons, Mount Baldy was a lesson of choices, opportunities, challenges and consequences.

Eight decades later on July 15, 2013, there was the antipodal event, when 6-year-old Nathan Woessner, hiking on Mount Baldy with his father Greg and a friend, disappeared, as the Associated Press described it, “without warning or sound.”

During his State of the State address Tuesday night, Gov. Mike Pence picked up the narrative.  “Michigan City police and fire raced to the dune and were joined by beachgoers using their bare hands as local businesses rushed machinery to clear away the sand. Even reporters covering the story were seen using their notepads to dig. For nearly three hours, no one out of the nearly 140 people on that sand dune gave up until a firefighter felt a hand beneath the surface and pulled little Nathan to safety. They called it the Miracle on Mount Baldy.”

Nathan was limp and cold, with no pulse, no breathing. LaPorte County Deputy Coroner Mark Huffman ordered the boy into the back of a pickup truck and he was taken to a waiting ambulance. As the truck bounced over the dune, the AP reported, a medic noticed something astonishing: The boy took a breath. Then, a cut on his head started bleeding. The jolt apparently shocked Nathan's body back to life.

When Gov. Pence called the hospital to talk to the family, he said, “I told him I thought it was a miracle. Greg told me, 'Governor, this is everyone's miracle.'” And so it is.

“That's the Indiana way. We are strong and good people, but we are never stronger than when we work together,” Pence said.

While Pence made a push for his business tax repeal, his pre-K education program, he also waded into the controversies of the day including the marriage amendment. But it was this last part of the speech that Gov. Pence does best. He has the Clintonian gift of empathy. He maintains a positive outlook.

His vigorous brand of conservatism brings out the critics from the center and left. But when the topic of Pence comes up, the preface is nearly always “he's a nice guy.”

Polling over the last year finds the political ground quaking on a number of social issues that tend to be moving away from the governor. But with his approval in the 60th percentile, the Hoosier governor along with his super majorities in the Indiana General Assembly are in an enviable position to continue to move this state into the conservative worldview.

There also was Pence's tribute to Karen Sauer, the “single mom who felt called to adopt,” as he put it. This was fascinating because it was a breakaway from the Pence worldview of whole families with a mom and dad. Here was a single woman who fished Neven and Dusten out of the foster care system, and provided a durable, loving home, even if it doesn't meet the Ward and June Cleaver threshold.

“Adoption is a beautiful way for families to come together forever,” Pence said. “We can better support families like Karen's by expanding and improving adoption in Indiana. Let's make it our aim to make Indiana the most pro-adoption state in America.”

There is so much to do for kids in a state where 22 percent of them live in poverty and another 34 percent live in single parent households. But it also is an acknowledgment of what many of us know: Same-sex couples and untraditional family units can provide nourishing environs for Hoosier kids. That nuance is often unrecognized in the current polarized debate over “traditional marriage.” The reality is there is a lot of gray area in real lives.

The other thought is, there is much work to do on this front and Pence's adoption call is a good place to start.

But there was a lot of work to do, too, when Nathan Woessner slipped below the sands of Mount Baldy.

— Brian Howey publishes at Find him on Twitter @hwypol.


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