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Text and photos by Larry Goffinet
It was a book that brought Ed Whitcomb to Perry County.
But it wasn’t one extolling the virtues of the county – it was one he was trying to write about his sailing solo around the world.
“I was writing a book, living in Hayden (in Jennings County, where he grew up), and I had so many interruptions trying to do it,” the former Indiana governor said last Thursday.
Warren Atkinson, a friend who owned some property in Perry County, told Whitcomb he could find some peace and quiet here.
“I came down to write and I liked it here,” Whitcomb said.
The book was also responsible for Whitcomb’s meeting his current wife, the former Evelyn Gayer, a Perry County native.
Whitcomb saw a newspaper notice about a computer class being offered for senior citizens at Perry Central High School. “So I thought I’ll learn to use a computer and write my book that way,” he said.
Bill and Dixie Dickerson taught the class and instructed their students to write the name of a friend on their computer.
“I looked over and saw that this old, gray-haired lady was writing ‘Edgar Whitcomb,’” he said. “I wondered how she knew me. Then we became friends.”
That was 12 years ago, and they got married last year.
“I was 95 and I married a 44-year-old lady,” Whitcomb said with a twinkle in his eye.
“Eighty-four,” she corrected him.
Whitcomb moved to Perry County in 2000. At first he lived in a cabin near Rome and also kept his home in Jennings County, but then he bought a two-story frame home in Rome “from an old doctor in Tell City,” renovated it extensively, and made it his full-time home.
And he did get his book, “Cilin II: A Solo Sailing Odyssey,” written.
It was his third book, following “Escape from Corregidor” about escaping twice from the Japanese when he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, and “On Celestial Wings” about his being in the first class of pilots to learn to use the stars and other celestial bodies for navigation. A large photo of that 1940 class appears on a wall in his house.
But he said he’s never considered writing a memoir about his term as governor, 1969-73.
“I want him to,” said Evelyn. “I’d like to see him write a book about his (entire) life.”
Asked what accomplishment as governor he was most proud of, he said, “Maintaining a sound economy in government. We didn’t spend more than we took in in taxes, and we ended up with a healthy surplus.”
He did that without raising taxes, keeping a campaign promise. But he said, “It was a constant battle with interests who wanted to increase the tax burden.”
One of those interests was a member of his own Republican Party, Indiana Speaker of the House Dr. Otis Bowen, who would succeed Whitcomb as governor.
“Otis was determined that he was going to raise taxes,” said Whitcomb. “He tried every way that he could. Even when we had a lot of trouble with property taxes, he wanted to increase the sales tax (if he couldn’t raise) property taxes.”
Despite their disagreement, they remained friends. “We didn’t personally argue the tax business,” said Whitcomb.
“They got along,” agreed Evelyn. She noted that the Bowens visited them once at their current home and Bowen’s widow, Carol, stayed there “a couple of days” in the past year.
Instead of raising taxes, Whitcomb concentrated on making government more efficient, another of his campaign promises.
“I established the Governor’s Economy Program and brought in people – many times from the other political party – to accomplish our purpose,” he said. He noted that his predecessor, Democrat Roger Branigin, became a member of that panel.
Bowen died last year at age 95 (Whitcomb attended his funeral), so Whitcomb, who turned 96 Nov. 6, has outlived every other Indiana governor.
The secret to his longevity?
“I was captain of my basketball team (the Hayden Haymakers) in high school and always maintained good health, except when I had malaria during the war.”
Staying active has been a big part of maintaining that health.
When he first came to Perry County, a younger resident marveled that Whitcomb was riding his bicycle on hilly roads “without breathing hard. I couldn’t keep up with him. And he’s in his 80s!”
“I rode my bicycle until three or four years ago,” said Whitcomb. “Then I gave it to my son.”