Former governor dies at age 98

Ex-Indiana Gov. Edgar Whitcomb, a World War II vet who sailed around the world in his 70s, died Thursday at his home in Rome on the Ohio River in Perry County.

The Republican small-town lawyer from Hayden, who was quick to veto legislation even though the Legislature was controlled by his fellow Republicans, died Thursday, according to his daughter, Patricia Whitcomb.

The former Seymour resident was 98.

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A couple of Hayden residents who spent time with Whitcomb when he was home spoke about what he meant to them and the community.

“After he moved to Perry County, he would call me every month or two,” Pat Sullivan said. “He was just curious about what was going on, not only across the country but in Hayden.”

Sullivan taught at Hayden Elementary School for 38 years, and he always had his sixth-graders read Whitcomb’s book, “Escape from Corregidor,” when they were studying World War II.

“Then I would call him and asked him to come in and talk to the kids,” Sullivan said. “He would come in dressed in a suit and talk to them and answer every question.”

Sullivan said the things Whitcomb accomplished in his life speaks volumes about the kind of man he was.

“To come from a little ’burg like Hayden and go on to greatness is something else,” he said. “I always told him, ‘Look what you accomplished in your life. You set the mark for us.’”

Rodger Ruddick, with the Hayden Historical Museum, said the Whitcombs played a key role in helping establishing the museum because the land it sits on belong to their family at one time.

The family home was given to the museum a couple of years ago and efforts are in the works to restore it to the condition it was in when Whitcomb returned home in 1943 after being a prisoner of war.

Ruddick said Whitcomb always took the time to speak to the Little Hayden History Club at the school if he was at home.

“I had a chance to hear him every time, and he always was coming up with new stories,” said Ruddick, who was in charge of the club.

Ruddick said Whitcomb was a common man who didn’t put on any airs around others.

“He cherished growing up in Hayden, playing basketball here and hunting and fishing,” Ruddick said. “He wound up being the most celebrated person from Hayden, if not from southern Indiana.”

After returning home from the war, Whitcomb earned a law degree from Indiana University and practiced law for a number of years.

He served as a member of the Indiana State Senate, representing Dearborn, Jennings and Ripley counties. In 1966, he was elected to serve as Indiana’s Secretary of State, and in 1968 he served as 43rd governor from 1969 to 1973.

His term was marked by ongoing disputes over spending and taxes. He vetoed scores of bills, most notably a plan backed by then-House Speaker Otis Bowen in 1971 to cut property taxes by increasing the state sales tax.

Whitcomb had won the GOP nomination for governor at the party’s 1968 state convention over Bowen, and he took a strict stance against any tax increases.

Bowen went on to win election as governor in 1972 and push a similar property tax plan through the Legislature the following year. The changes were well received by the public, and Bowen was wildly popular when he left office.

Whitcomb, though, did not retreat from his position, saying his work to economize state government and block tax hikes had benefited residents.

“Surely the hundreds of millions of dollars which are in the hands of taxpayers as a result of your refusal to increase general taxes have contributed to this surge in personal income,” Whitcomb told legislators in his 1973 farewell address.

Whitcomb, who was the father of five, moved his law practice to Seymour in the 1970s. He practiced law with long-time Jackson Circuit Judge Robert R. Brown and the two were good friends for many years until Brown’s death in September of 2011.

In September of 2014, a monument of Whitcomb was unveiled in his hometown. Whitcomb attended that ceremony at the Hayden Historical Museum.

The monument pays tribute to three periods in Whitcomb’s life. To the left is a flagpole with a U.S. flag and a plaque in honor of Whitcomb’s time serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces. During World War II, he was sent to the Philippines and was captured by the Japanese. He escaped twice and rejoined the war effort.

He later published a book, “Escape from Corregidor,” recalling the events.

A plaque to the right is dedicated to Whitcomb’s adventurous spirit. In 1996 at age 71, he sailed solo around the world in his sailboat, which hit a reef and sank. Whitcomb had to be rescued. In 2011, he published his third book, “Cilin II, A Sailing Odyssey.”

In the middle is the large bust that signifies his time as governor. He also served three years in the Indiana State Senate and was secretary of state in 1966. The Indiana state flag flies from a second flagpole to the right.

Whitcomb said at the time he appreciated the idea that the community thought enough of him to build the monument sculpted by Greg Harris of Tell City.

“Governor Ed Whitcomb was a great man whose life of courage, service and adventure inspired generations of Hoosiers, and he will be deeply missed,” Gov. Mike Pence said in a statement Thursday.

In his 80s, Whitcomb moved to an isolated cabin, with a battery as its only electrical source, on 140 acres of forest along the Ohio River. He lived there for several years with Mary Evelyn Gayer before they married in 2013 — when he was 95 and she was 83. They had met 12 years earlier while taking a computer class.

Ed Whitcomb file

Whitcomb timeline

1917: Born Nov. 6 in Hayden

1939: Started college at Indiana University

1940: Left IU to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Forces

1941-43: Sent to the Philippines and captured by Japanese, escaped twice, then was repatriated and rejoined the war effort

1946: Discharged from the service but remained in National Guard until 1997, retiring with the rank of colonel.

1947: Enrolled again at IU to finish degree and study law

1950: Served 3 years in the Indiana State Senate

1953: Married Patricia Dolfus, who now lives in Seymour, and together they raised five children

1954: Began law practice in North Vernon, later moved office to Seymour and Indianapolis

1958: Published “Escape from Corregidor”

1966: Served as Indiana secretary of state

1969-72: Was governor of Indiana

1973: Returned to private law practice

1985: Retired from law practice

1996: Sailed solo around the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. His boat hit a reef in the Gulf of Suez and sank. He was rescued and returned to the U.S.

2000: Moved to a log cabin in Perry County, hear the Ohio River.

2011: Published his third book, “Cilin II, A Sailing Odyssey”

2013: Married Evelyn Gayer on Feb. 16.

Author photo
Aubrey Woods is editor of The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at awoods@tribtown.com or 812-523-7051.