John Davies helps honor region’s “Legends” and “Innovators.”
by Rick A. Richards
Ask John Davies for a couple of minutes and he’ll give you 10 on something positive about Northwest Indiana. Looking at the region’s bright spot is not just in his nature, it’s his mission.
Davies, assistant director of the Gerald I. Lamkin Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center at Ivy Tech State College in Gary, is the driving force behind the Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana and the man behind South Shore Wall of Legends.
The first recognizes entrepreneurs, businesses and researchers involved in cutting edge technology and processes, while the latter takes a page from the region’s history and brings it to life, recognizing those who’ve had a historical impact on the region.
At the most recent unveiling of the inductees into the Wall of Legends at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond Dec. 15, Davies was quick to deflect credit to others. But the fact is, without his vision and leadership, there wouldn’t be a Wall of Legends or a Society of Innovators.
In a word, Davies has become an ambassador for Northwest Indiana.
The 68-year-old Davies lives on the farm in rural Porter County where he grew up. It’s where his father, who emigrated from Wales, chose to settle.
“He came here with just a handful of money and big dreams, like so many others who came to Northwest Indiana,” says Davies. “I remember he regaled me and my brother with tales of King Arthur. This was before television and I think that is where my imagination took root.”
It was a quarter of a century ago that Northwest Indiana took a big economic hit when the region’s steel industry collectively lost 50,000 jobs. That attracted a lot of attention about a depressed region falling into a dark hole from which it might not recover.
Davies didn’t like that impression and was convinced there was a lot of good in the region. It was a feeling that evolved into the South Shore Wall of Legends.
By 2002, Davies had his plan mapped out and he spent the next two years lining up supporters and sponsors. “I knew what I wanted to do, but my name was not enough,” says Davies. “But if I could link it with one of our great universities, we had something.”
With the help of Stephen McShane, the archivist at Indiana University Northwest, and the financial support of BP’s Whiting business unit, the first inductees to the Wall of Legends were announced in 2004.
“That was a magical moment,” says Davies. “It was a way to celebrate some amazing people.”
That first group included Dorothy Buell, the woman behind the creation of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore; Octave Chanute, whose experiments in flight along Lake Michigan in Gary predated the Wright Brothers; and Henry Chandler Cowles, a scientist whose research in the Indiana dunes area led people like Buell to push for a national park.
Davies said his life is guided by his internal compass. “My true north is place, my true south is the power of understanding, my true east is the power of faith and my true west is the power of an idea,” he says. “I grew up here and we’ve grown here.”
On the family’s farm, there are 14,000 walnut trees, each planted by hand. It’s a crop that takes a lifetime to grow and a belief in the future.
The tales of King Arthur he heard as a boy led Davies to a life-long interest in history. Today, he says history is intertwined with present day, the reason the Wall of Legends is so close to his heart.
“These are people who were defined as leaders by a single decision at a single point in time,” says Davies. “I think it’s important to look to the past and how it relates to leadership today.”
During this year’s induction, Davies made that link a reality for fourth-graders with the announcement that a textbook with information on each of the 20 people or groups inducted into the Wall of Legends had been published. Fourth-graders in Lake and Porter counties will use it to study the region’s history.
Called “The Legends’ Compass,” the book has a short biography on each South Shore Legend, from astronaut Jerry Ross of Crown Point to popcorn king Orville Redenbacher of Valparaiso, from world boxing champion Tony Zale of Gary to author Jean Shepherd of Hammond.
With help from his daughter, Jennifer, a former fourth-grade teacher who now works at Tradewinds, the book hits at the heart of what Davies sees as most important about Northwest Indiana – its people.