Indianapolis Collected: Tribute to a “Hero in Overalls”

Written by on September 5, 2015 in Indianapolis Collected - 5 Comments
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Classes were dismissed early on the afternoon of April 12, 1907, so that students and teachers at Shortridge High School could attend a funeral in the school’s auditorium, Caleb Mills Hall. The deceased individual was an elderly man named James M. Biddy. This was the first time that the doors of the high school had ever been opened for a funeral, and according to The Indianapolis Morning Star, it would likely be the last.  Although the venue was unusual, it was appropriate, because — as the school’s principal told the Star — there had never been a man in the history of  Shortridge who was more admired by everyone connected with the school than James Biddy.

In fact, James Biddy’s legacy continued to loom large more than two decades after his death, when some of the more prominent students who had graduated from Shortridge were asked to pen a short remembrance of their high school days for the 1928 yearbook, the Annual.  That year saw the relocation of Shortridge High School from the 500 block of North Pennsylvania Street to the 3400 block of North Meridian Street.  Former state entomologist Benjamin Wallace Douglass, who was graduated from Shortridge in 1900, wrote:

In the memory of my student days at Shortridge, one man stands out, sharply etched against the background of the years… Faithful to his work, loyal to all that was good, honest as the day is long, I doubt if his influence among the boys and girls was exceeded by that of any other man connected with the school… And yet he was not the principal; he was not a teacher; in fact he had never even been a student at any high school.

He was only the Janitor, James M. Biddy.

Obit

The Indianapolis News, April 11, 1907

Later that year, the old building that Biddy had lovingly tended for decades would be torn down and replaced with a magnificent new high school at 34th and Meridian Streets.  New students would arrive – students who had never been warmed by the fires that Biddy had built, greeted by his friendly handshake, entertained by his stories, or admonished by his stern gaze. Within a few years, it would seem, the janitor once deemed the most influential man to walk the halls of Shortridge High School would be largely forgotten.

That is, until about ten days ago, when a photo of a worn bronze tablet honoring James Biddy popped up on Instagram.  “Check out this large #bronze plaque dated #1916 now this guy must have been one hell of a #custodian at Shortridge High School to get a plaque like this,” Lil Doc Keys posted on Instagram.  Keys operates Doc’s Architectural Salvage and Reclamation Services in a former lumberyard on West 30th Street.

Instagram

On August 24, 2015, an Indianapolis native who now lives in Chicago stumbled across the Instagram photo and shared a screenshot of it on Historic Indianapolis contributor Sharon Butsch Freeland’s Facebook page. Although the Windy City resident has never met Sharon, she follows Historic Indianapolis and knew that Sharon would take an interest in the unusual memorial.

The timing was perfect. A 1965 Shortridge graduate, Sharon had just finished chairing her class’ 50-year reunion weekend on August 14, 15, and 16.  In addition, she was in the midst of researching early public schools for an HI Mailbag article.  Sharon immediately started digging into the Biddy plaque mystery, and within minutes posted on Facebook a 1916 article she found in The Indianapolis News that shed some light on the tablet and the man it honored.

1916.10.10.Indianapolis_News_Jas.Biddy.plaque

The Indianapolis News, October 10, 1916. Clara Leonard Sorensen’s design was chosen from a field of 7 competitors. Shortridge raised $600 to pay for the bronze tablet – the equivalent of about $14,000 today.

In early 1916, a Centennial committee of Shortridge faculty was given the task of determining how the high school and its students should celebrate Indiana’s 100th birthday.  Although several different suggestions were discussed, the committee quickly endorsed teacher Laura Donnan’s idea to commission a bronze tablet featuring James Biddy. In a statement later issued by Shortridge High School, the faculty members said they chose Biddy for this unique honor because they felt that the selection would “… dignify labor, honor worth, and bring to the minds of all future students of Shortridge the value of character.”

The committee was universally applauded for its decision to bestow this once-in-a-century honor on a janitor. As the American School Board Journal noted in 1916:

It would be difficult to find a more genuine expression of Americanism than this tribute of a committee of teachers to a man in a lowly position. We frequently speak of the equality of citizens, but it is rare indeed to find such recognition of the worth of a man in what is considered a menial occupation. Certainly the democracy of the schools is realized in Shortridge High School and is impressed upon its students.

While the faculty’s decision to pay posthumous tribute to a janitor may have been a “genuine expression of Americanism,” the memorial tablet was also a genuine expression of the respect and admiration that Biddy had earned during his long tenure with the Indianapolis Public Schools. As The Indianapolis News wrote in September of 1916, “[i]t is not likely that another such memorial exists in any school in the country. No precedent guided the committee in its selection…except the living memory of the sincerity, honesty, simplicity of a man ten years dead.”

By the time he died in 1907, Biddy was 73 years old and had spent half his lifetime working for IPS — 11 years at School #6 and more than 25 years at Shortridge, where he was eventually promoted to building superintendent. Until his final illness, he had never missed a day of work, and he was always there to greet the students and teachers with a cheerful smile and a handshake.  And even though Biddy had a staff of six custodians working under him during his final years, he was frequently spied shoveling the walks at 2 a.m. or scurrying to school in the dead of night to stoke the fires.

But most of all, Shortridge students, teachers, and parents remembered Biddy for his warmth and honesty. As the The Indianapolis Morning Star noted in his obituary, James Biddy “probably had as many friends as anyone living in the city.”

Building

Biddy’s world.  Above, a photo of Indianapolis High School (renamed Shortridge in 1897) as it appeared in the 1894 Annual, and below, a photo of the “new” grand staircase from the 1898 Annual.

During his final year of life, Biddy was in and out of the hospital, suffering from complications of kidney disease. Because of his popularity in the city, the Star published frequent updates on Biddy’s condition, including several optimistic reports that the man was recovering and would soon be returning to Shortridge. But by April 1907, Biddy had been off work for months, and his family’s finances were stretched to the limit.

On April 9, 1907, the IPS Board of School Commissioners voted unanimously to continue paying Biddy’s salary, with the commissioners pledging to help cover the cost from their own pockets, if necessary. But it was too late.  Biddy died the following day.

Study hall

From the 1928 Annual, Downtown Indianapolis was in the midst of a building boom in the late 1920s, and Shortridge students and faculty were looking forward to a move north to a new building in the suburbs.

The Biddy memorial tablet was installed in a place of honor on the landing of the high school’s grand staircase. His young granddaughter, Jewel Biddy, unveiled the bronze tablet during a school-wide ceremony on October 6, 1916.  Jewel’s father Lemuel was one of Biddy’s eight children and himself a janitor at Calvin Fletcher School #8.  Despite Jewel’s humble beginnings, she would go on to graduate from Shortridge in 1927, the final year that the school was located downtown.

The fall after Jewel was graduated from Shortridge, the school opened in a brand new building at 3401 North Meridian Street.  Obviously, the bronze tablet was salvaged before the old high school was demolished in 1929, but its whereabouts after that are not known.  At some point, the marker ended up at the Indiana State Museum, stored on the 4th floor of the old City Hall, along with other items that were not part of the museum’s collection but were too valuable to discard.

Thirteen years ago, when the museum vacated City Hall for its new location at White River State Park, Doc Keys purchased the James Biddy tablet, along with a hodgepodge of other surplus state property.  The Shortridge artifact had been in storage at Doc’s until last week.

Jewell C

Above, photos of Jewel Biddy from the 1927 Annual and the landing from the 1899 Annual. Jewel Biddy was graduated from Shortridge in 1927. Her yearbook caption read “One of those girls who nails ’em with her beautiful eyes and cute smiles.”

Four generations of Sharon Butsch Freeland’s family attended Shortridge, and the history and heritage of the school are very dear to her heart.  So when she saw the photo of the tablet posted on her Facebook page, she was compelled to take action.  She felt the piece of the school’s history needed to be returned to Shortridge and not sold to a private collector or — even worse — to someone who would then sell it merely for the value of the metal.

After a couple of awkward phone conversations with Lil Doc Keys, he agreed to donate the tablet to Shortridge.  Sharon and her husband Mike immediately jumped into their car and hurried to the salvage company to retrieve the artifact.  A few days later, Sharon, Mike, and Tom Greist, President of the Shortridge Class of 1965 during their class’ senior year, then delivered the Centennial tablet to Shortridge Principal Shane O’Day.  Sharon hopes the memorial will be restored to a place of honor in the building.   Sharon also feels the Centennial marker’s resurfacing at this particular time was fate, since Indiana will be celebrating its Bicentennial in 2016.  The rededication of a century-old treasure could become a vehicle for bringing Shortridge faculty, students, alumni, administrators, and neighbors together.

Michael Freeland, Sharon Butsch Freeland, and Tom Greist delivered the marker to Shortridge Principal Shane O'Day

Michael Freeland, Sharon Butsch Freeland, and Tom Greist delivered the marker to Shortridge Principal Shane O’Day

I hope so, too.  Even though James Biddy has been dead for more than 100 years, the message sent by the bronze tablet that honors his life is timeless. As 1898 Shortridge graduate Claude Bowers said in 1916, at the unveiling of the marker:

Heroes of the world are often found in overalls.  It is not the position a man holds, but the way he fills it, that counts.

Biddy plaque

The inscriptions read, “Seest thou a man diligent in his business he shall stand before kings. Proverbs,” and “He dignified labor, for he knew no master but duty, had no comrade but truth, desired no approval but self-respect.”


The sculptor who was selected to create the centennial marker was one of seven artists who competed for the commission.  Almost a decade before she was awarded the commission for the James Biddy tablet, sculptor Clara Barth Leonard Sorensen Dieman (1877–1959) sculpted a bust of Stephen Neal (shown below), which stands in the rotunda of the Indiana Statehouse. Dieman was born in Indianapolis and taught at the John Herron Art Institute, before moving on to design sculptures in Illinois, Texas, and Colorado. She specialized in integrating sculpture into building design. More information about Dieman and photos of her work are available here.

Neal

Stephen Neal was a former Indiana legislator who is widely credited with writing the first draft of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

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About the Author

Libby Cierzniak is a partner at Faegre, Baker & Daniels, LLP, practicing primarily in the area of government affairs. A native of Kokomo, she became fascinated with historic preservation and Indianapolis history in the 1990s while working in the newly renovated Statehouse. She's an avid collector of "old Indianapolis"--books, photographs, advertising and other items--and loves to research and share information with others about the city's rich and colorful history. Libby, her husband and their two chronically misbehaving dogs live in an 1894 home in the Old Northside, where she serves on the board of the neighborhood association.

5 Comments on "Indianapolis Collected: Tribute to a “Hero in Overalls”"

  1. Jack Boyd September 5, 2015 at 11:15 am · Reply

    Mr. Biddy must have been a marvelous human being. Let me add a similar name: Mr. Pensinger (I don’t remember his first name; we just called him Penny), who was the custodian at James Whitcomb Riley School No. 43, at 40th & North Capitol Avenue. I knew him and his two helpers to do fine, reliable work for the years 1941 through 1946, when I attended that school. Tall, skinny, always with a wry smile, I think he thought of himself as the Assistant Principal because a frown and clenched jaw put any recalcitrant kid back into line.

  2. Iola Tomlinson Lanaman September 10, 2015 at 4:43 pm · Reply

    Great article Sharon. You do a great job of digging up the history of our alma mater, Shortridge High School. I graduated in June of 1944. Keep on digging into the history of Indianapolis.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland September 10, 2015 at 8:37 pm · Reply

      Thanks. I will.

  3. Judy Mendenhall Shiffler November 19, 2015 at 8:36 pm · Reply

    Shortridge’s positive influence on all alums is nearly immeasurable. It was a multi-generation part of my family and holds huge importance in my personal life story. Shortridge taught me the amazing values of daily multi-cultural influences, as well as striving for excellence in all life’s goals. I’m so grateful for the Alumni Association and their efforts to keep us well-informed and connected to our past, as well as the present activities in the school. I would be very involved if I lived nearby. Thank you Sharon for your wonderful rescue of this important symbol of what Shortridge has represented over the years.
    .
    Judy Shiffler, Fairbanks, Alaska

  4. marvin w. reed March 4, 2016 at 10:15 am · Reply

    Am certain there are many custodians of not only Indiana schools but throughout the world who have had important interactions with students. Before consolidation in 1964, Boston High School had William “Bill” Allen and his wife Lucy, who were instrumental in keeping Boston School going along with their supportive staff.

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