John the Storyteller
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
When I visit with my sister Barb and her husband, John, it never takes long for John to get into storytelling mode.
He grew up in French Lick, Indiana, a spa and railroad town back in the day that was home — along with adjacent West Baden — to stately hotels and raucous casinos (and later, Larry Bird). The area had underground tunnels that allowed for secret movement between the various locales, reputed as surreptitious hangouts of Al Capone and other gangster types.
The small Orange County towns routinely attracted guests from Chicago, and John’s paternal grandfather had a fleet of taxis that helped the Windy City visitors get to southern Indiana and home again. At times during Prohibition, some of the passengers also enlisted help to covertly transport moonshine. Getting hotel guests to and from the Kentucky Derby in Louisville each spring was another part of the drivers’ work.
As a young man, John — now 79 — worked at the French Lick Sheraton as an electrician to prepare the stage for musicians. He met renowned performers of all genres, including Leslie Uggams and BJ Thomas.
John also worked as a mechanic before a career in heating and air-conditioning. When I visited last spring, he told of the time Porter Wagoner was in town to play at the hotel and had a problem with his tour bus. Mr. Wagoner was directed to the garage where John was working, and after John diagnosed the problem, the two men went to Louisville to get a part. While there, Mr. Wagoner drove the bus through a drive-through liquor store to pick up some beer.
Then there was the time in the late ’50s when John, a would-be artist, was tasked with drawing the mascot for his recently consolidated high school. He didn’t quite like the way the Springs Valley Blackhawk was looking, so he turned for help from … Walt Disney. Mr. Disney tweaked John’s work and returned it.
When I got home from my visit, I immediately ordered an audio recorder, which I took along on my next visit to help document John’s stories. John’s health was ailing and he was experiencing more and more pain related to his lupus. When he shared his memories, however, his face brightened and his mood lightened. I left the recorder there to encourage more reminiscing.
John died Sunday.
I don’t know how many of his stories he and my sister got recorded, but I know we have saved more of them than if I wouldn’t have invested $40 in that recorder. And I know that now John’s two grandsons will have the opportunity to be entertained by their grandfather just as I was.