Former Gov. Edgar Whitcomb, a World War II vet who sailed around the world in his 70s, died Feb. 4 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, was 98.
Hayden resident Pat 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.
“He would come in dressed in a suit and talk to them and answer every question,” Sullivan said.
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“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.’”
The family home was given to the Hayden Historical 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.
After 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 state senate, representing Dearborn, Jennings and Ripley counties. In 1966, he was elected as Indiana’s secretary of state. And in 1968, he was elected to become the state’s 43rd governor, serving from 1969 to 1972.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 was 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 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.
Home and abroad
Whitcomb, a father of five, moved his law practice to Seymour in the 1970s.One of those five, son John Whitcomb, now lives in Brown County. He said he will remember his father as “very generous, and he loved all people regardless of race or social status.“He also believed very strongly in America and saw it as the greatest land of opportunity anywhere on the earth. He was fearless and would seem to accomplish whatever he set out to do.”
In September 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 Corps.
During World War II, he was sent to the Philippines and was captured by the Japanese. He escaped twice and rejoined the war effort.
His book, “Escape from Corregidor,” recalls the events.
A plaque to the right is dedicated to Whitcomb’s adventurous spirit.
In 1996 at age 71, he made a solo trip 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. The state flag flies from a second flagpole to the right.
Whitcomb said at the time he appreciated that the community thought enough of him to build the monument.
When he was 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.
“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.
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.