Printed for personal use only

Long Shot

Milan could be any small Indiana town—except, of course, for its high-school basketball team, which won the state title almost 60 years ago. Now, a few locals are trying to adapt that history into a basketball museum and a bid at reviving their town. But

SO THERE’S THIS PICTURE. It’s of the 1954 Milan Indians, and it’s not the reserved, rigorously posed one everyone remembers. Someone—nobody knows who—took this other photograph right after the team had shocked the state, got it inside their Hinkle Fieldhouse locker room, where the players and coaches are tightly woven together, all arms and legs, wearing a set of expressions that show just how many different ways a human being can express joy.

You might not know the picture, but you know the story: The high school whose enrollment is 161, led by the coach whose favorite phrase is “I’ll try,” watches the player who does not own a telephone hit the game-winning shot. The next day, 40,000 fans lined the road leading into Milan, spilling into fields and onto building tops. And people have been celebrating the team ever since, especially after it was immortalized in Hoosiers. Milan’s team frequently crops up on Top-Whatever lists (Sports Illustrated’s “20 Favorite Teams of the Century,” for example), and Butler’s improbable Final Four run last year brought another wave of invocations.

Today, however, Milan finds itself part of another, more common story: a withered downtown, a dearth of good jobs, and kids who head off to college and never come back. The small town has become a mash-up of old and new, dying and getting by, hallowed ground and Dairy Queen. Its aging population needs a pharmacy, but because they’re too few to keep one around, they must drive 20 minutes for a prescription. The Milan Plaza, a strip mall decorated in the school’s colors of gold and black, has vacancies in four of its seven storefronts. No Realtor has even bothered to put up signs for prospective clients.

But a local nonprofit, Milan ’54, Inc., wants to change all this by building a museum to capitalize on the town’s basketball legacy. The nonprofit includes nine men and women—some former players, others related to former players, one even related to the ’54 team mascot. They’re among Milan’s best and brightest, people who seem smart and passionate and more than a little stubborn. They’ve created an archive of memorabilia, everything from vintage pennants to pieces of the original gym floor. And, if they can rustle up enough money for their big expansion, they hope to make the museum a destination for tourists nationwide.

Still, when you see what the Milan ’54 group is up against, you realize that these goals might make for Milan’s longest odds yet. And that they might not even be the right plan to save the town—or the right lesson to draw from the original team. In Milan and Indy and everywhere else, the boys of ’54 have become a parable about achieving the impossible. But the real story captured in that historic photo isn’t about destiny or David versus Goliath. It’s about fundamental stuff like hard work and competition—stuff that sometimes pays off and sometimes doesn’t.

CRAMMED INTO AN OLD DOWNTOWN BARBERSHOP, the current incarnation of the Milan ’54 Museum looks a lot like the place where Gene Hackman meets the Hickory patriarchs, except this one—“Nichol’s Barber Shop”—is much smaller. Still, the Milan ’54 group has made the most of it. Blown-up photographs (Coach Wood cutting down the net, the parade crowd shivering in the cold) and yellowed newspaper clippings cover the barbershop’s pale green walls. On and around the cracked porcelain sinks and National cash register sits a mismatched collection of display cases. In addition to uniforms, ticket stubs, and other things you would expect, they hold the team’s original first-aid kit, a rusted rim taken from a player’s barn, the fur coat worn by Coach Wood’s wife to the parade. Along the back wall, 10 wooden lockers showcase autographed basketballs, varsity jackets (both Milan and Hickory High), brief ?where-are-they-now narratives, sneakers, yearbook pages, and a handkerchief one player gave his girl at a school dance. Several dozen fat three-ring binders contain even more photos and newspaper clippings and—after the high-school janitor rediscovered them in 2003—almost 200 telegrams and letters from the governor, the mayor of Indianapolis, and others congratulating the team. (One letter is addressed simply “THE COACH/THE TEAM, MILAN, INDIANA.”)

It’s an incredible collection, especially if you’ve passed through Milan for most of your life without even knowing it existed. Like my father and grandfather, I grew up about five miles from Milan. My sisters played softball and soccer in Milan; my mom got her hair cut in Milan. Still, none of us knew about the museum. And so, two Januarys ago—I’d moved to Connecticut after college but was home for the holidays—I found myself on my first visit, sitting in an uncomfortably inclined barber’s chair and talking with Tom Kohlmeier and Roselyn McKittrick, two of the museum’s biggest boosters.

“It just happened,” McKittrick says of the museum. “There wasn’t a big plan.” Wearing a white turtleneck and even whiter Keds, McKittrick is now in her 70s, but when Hoosiers came out she was still running Milan’s Railroad Inn, widely esteemed for its fried chicken. (McKittrick ended up selling the restaurant, and it has since closed—because, she contends, “the new owner tried to turn it into a four-star.”) At the request of some local Boy Scouts, McKittrick put out a few 5x7s from Hoosiers at the Railroad Inn. The photos sold well, and the movie—which McKittrick, like everyone else I talked to, loves (“truth, if not accuracy” is the company line)—catalyzed everything. It convinced her a museum might work.

McKittrick began acquiring and displaying other Milan memorabilia at the Railroad Inn, and then at her next business, an antiques store. In 2000, she and a few other locals formed Milan ’54, Inc., with the hope of finding a permanent home for her collection. They settled on the old State Bank of Milan, a two-story brick building that sits right next to Nichol’s. To buy the bank, which cost $60,000, the group received a grant for $50,000 from the philanthropic arm of a local casino. They also got $3,000 from Mitch Daniels’ foundation. And their website—offering Milan ’54 shirts, hats, and DVDs—brought in a few thousand dollars more.

Buying the building, though, represented only the first step. After McKittrick retired from antiquing in 2003, the group moved into the barbershop, a location that was intended to be temporary. They hired Schmidt Associates, an Indianapolis consulting firm, to draw up an ambitious plan that calls not only for the restoration of the bank to its 1954 state, but also for additions like turning the vault into a display room for the championship trophy and players’ rings, a corner office into a 30-seat movie theater, and one outside wall into a simulated barn door and basketball hoop.

But a state-of-the-art product will cost money: $2.5 million, according to the consultants. And McKittrick and company have struggled with additional fundraising. Indiana still loves its most famous underdogs—the state Senate passed a resolution honoring the team in 2004—but more tangible recognition has been hard to find.

Tom Kohlmeier was only 3 years old in 1954, but he feels a strong affinity for the team—perhaps because his parents and grandparents attended every game that season, perhaps because his P.E. teachers showed the ’54 game film every year in class. Dressed in blue jeans and a bomber jacket, Kohlmeier is blunt and intense. He quickly confesses, for example, that like most of the players on the 1954 team, he left Milan for college and never came back. (This may be the team’s most lasting legacy: Of its 10 players, nine went to college and eight graduated—all shocking statistics in 1950s Indiana.) But Kohlmeier and the rest of the Milan ’54 group remain frustrated by the lack of local support for the museum, especially from young people. “The town has become anesthetized to the story,” he says. “They don’t believe we’re going to build this thing. But we’re going to show them.” Kohlmeier mentions that a local photographer with a whole basement full of images from the game won’t let them even see the shots without first paying a fee. And then there’s the town’s brand-new sign, a simple “Welcome to Milan, Est. 1854” marker that replaced the old one and its prominent “1954 State Champs” logo.

Such slights aggravate Kohlmeier because, to his mind, they affect not only the museum, but also Milan’s own best shot at salvation. Where McKittrick offers a mix of?? hope and historical perspective—for the town’s sesquicentennial in 2004, she co-wrote a history of Milan—Kohlmeier brings a strong business sense to the Milan ’54 group. He now lives in Noblesville, where he is chairman of the board at SEEMAC, a wholesale distributor of wood products. But Kohlmeier hopes to retire in Milan—a Milan closer to the one where he was born and raised. The town used to be “self-contained” and “vertically integrated,” he says, and the Milan Miracle simply confirmed what the natives had known all along: that Milan was a wonderful place to live, work, and play.

Few people work or play there today. And while the Milan ’54 group understands that the museum alone won’t save the town, they do hope it will inspire an economic renaissance. Kohlmeier dreams of “an open-air terrace” downtown. McKittrick suggests a soda fountain and a smattering of specialty shops and job-creating factories to allow people to actually work in Milan. But they admit they’d settle even for corporate clients, with Kohlmeier mentioning Subway and CVS by name.

The mention of CVS causes everyone to stop and fret over Milan’s lack of a pharmacy. It’s enough to give even McKittrick doubts. “We are under time pressure because of the age of the players,” she says—and, it’s implied, the age of the Milan ’54 board, with even its youngest member closing in on retirement. But when I ask about what they’ll do if they don’t get the full $2.5 million, Kohlmeier jumps in again. “I refuse to accept that,” he says. “If I have to take my personal retirement money, I will, and I’m not alone in that.”

TO UNDERSTAND STATEMENTS LIKE THIS, you need to understand what the Milan ’54 people are trying to build—or, more accurately, what they’re trying to revive. In 1954, Milan was a typical small town, meriting barely a mention in the Federal Writers’ Project guide to Indiana. Its 1,150 citizens were happily stranded between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, surrounded by cornfields and the occasional wood-frame farmhouse.

This hasn’t really changed—Milan’s population is up to 1,800, and a few of its fields have been broken up by newer homes—but, for the first half of the 20th century, Milan’s isolation served as its greatest strength. To accommodate the local farmers and factory workers, Milan’s downtown grew into three business-packed blocks: a bakery, a jewelry store, a shoe store, a dress store, a drugstore, a dime store with comic books and hair barrettes, a clinic with five doctors, several department stores and groceries, and more. There were restaurants like Arkenberg’s Ideal Dining Room, whose owner left basketball games early to start on the players’ milkshakes and burgers. Best (and biggest) of all, there was Chris Volz Motors, a dealership with enough selection to draw Cincinnati Reds players to Milan. At the grand opening of his new location in 1950 (and this is all in McKittrick’s book), Volz handed out 4,800 bottles of Coca-Cola and 5,500 hotdogs. Several ’54 players worked for Volz, and he coordinated a fleet of Cadillacs to bring the state champs home from Indianapolis in style.

The final stretch of the Cadillacs’ route—the part lined with 40,000 fans—followed State Road 101. In 1956, though, Milan got a bypass that shifted 101 from Main Street to a newer, speedier road. In some places, the route moved only a few hundred yards, but it was a big enough change to earn a photo spread in The Indianapolis News. Before too long, those photos began to feel like the first part of a before-and-after set. In 1959, the first grocery store left Milan’s downtown; by 1968, another had moved out to the bypass and the new Milan Plaza, where it was soon joined by the Milan Drug Store and the local dime store. A new hardware store opened on the bypass in 1961. The old railroad station was torn down in 1964. By 1974, the town was down to one doctor.

As this was happening in Milan, of course, it was happening everywhere else. And the other bypasses, along with the completion of Interstate 74, began to leach away Milan’s remaining stores and traffic. My dad, who was born in 1959, doesn’t remember the vibrant downtown version of Milan. The town’s main employer, the Milan Furniture Manufacturing Company, which employed around 200 people at its peak, burned down in 1980. Most locals see this as the violent coda to a decline that began many years earlier. The last movie to play at the Milan Theater was 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. For the Hoosiers premiere in 1986, the town loaded into school buses and went to nearby Batesville, and then came back to Milan High School for a big reception.

THIS PAST SUMMER, I VISITED Milan again. I planned to check in with McKittrick and Kohlmeier. But first, I wanted to go to the grand opening and dedication of the Milan Public Library, which promised to be the town’s social event of 2010—and, in comparison to the basketball museum, a very different vision for its future.

The afternoon commenced in the overcast wake of a classic Indiana rainstorm, but it didn’t slow the turnout. In fact, by the time the ceremony began, the library’s parking lot was so full that people started parking their cars and trucks in the mud alongside the road. As stragglers continued to join the crowd, a local minister led us in a prayer and the pledge under the new building’s outsized American flag. Next came a ribbon-cutting, complete with giant scissors and the local state rep.

After that, we headed inside. Older people took up all the folding chairs in the library’s community room, a small space separated from the main shelving area by a folding partition. Everyone else squeezed around the opening, and the head librarian kicked things off with a joke about crowd size and a new Twilight book.

But things soon turned serious, and the remaining speakers—each of whom had to brave the new sound system’s squealing feedback—explained how exactly the Milan Public Library went from a hazy dream in 1992 to a reality today. Technically, we were standing in the Milan branch of the Osgood Public Library because Milan and its surrounding townships did not have enough people to start a library. The Milan Library Project, a group of six volunteers, had struggled with all sorts of legal and bureaucratic hang-ups. They wrote letters, walked beside parade floats, made presentation after presentation. And then there was the money. In 2002, 10 years into their quest, they received a huge boost when Mabel Lamb, a local teacher who lived in Milan until her death at the age of 97, left them five acres and $50,000. It became the seed money for earning enough grants to cover the construction costs, which came in at just under a million dollars.

The library that resulted, with its high ceilings and bright colors and the first Wi-Fi hotspot in town history, immediately stood as the newest, nicest building in Milan. But it was clear from the ceremony’s speeches—and throat-clearings and hugs and, finally, tears—that it was also much more than that. “Children” and “opportunity” were the day’s refrains, and everyone nodded like they were at a revival.

After the program ended, a woman resumed playing the electric piano brought in for the reception. The Friends of the Milan Library served cookies and punch, though there wasn’t nearly enough. There was a raffle for two Reds tickets and for a Build-a-Bear. I ended up, punchless, next to Gary Anderson and Joe Neihardt, who, like everyone else, had dressed up for the occasion. Anderson, a carpenter who also handled Mabel’s power of attorney, had lived in Milan long enough to keep the same phone number for 33 years. When I asked him about the town’s future, he said, “Small towns are dying because of demographics, and Milan’s not going to come back. We haven’t had anything to offer young people for generations.” Neihardt, whose grandfather ran Milan’s original downtown hardware store, agreed. I asked about the Milan ’54 museum and its goal of reviving the downtown, but Anderson and Neihardt both gave polite non-answers. Still, they didn’t seem to tire of the story behind it. “Tired of the team?” Neihardt said, “Oh, heavens no. Any place you go, they know about Milan. That’s the only thing we have going for us.”

John Ingram, Milan’s town manager (its equivalent to a mayor), seemed to agree. In his windowless office, Ingram praised Milan’s quality of life—a few months back, it had its first home burglary “in 10 or 12 years”—but remained realistic about its limitations. Milan, like everywhere else, Ingram said, was still hurting from the recession, though he cheerfully added that “technically, there aren’t any businesses to suffer.” He had nothing but nice things to say about the town’s basketball legacy, but admitted he was far more worried about working toward a new sewer plant.

And this attitude seemed pretty representative. Most of the townspeople I talked to—and I hit all the important institutions: post office, liquor store, First Baptist Church—seemed ambivalent about the Milan ’54 group. Just about everyone shared a story about visitors asking for directions to the gym or the museum. But their municipal wish lists centered on more sidewalks, fewer potholes, fixing the middle school’s roof, launching a town-beautification initiative. The comment I heard most—here, in the words of a bank teller whose branch lobby carries copies of McKittrick’s book for sale—was that “I just wish we had more stuff for our kids. They move away as soon as they can.”

MY GRANDPARENTS FIRST MET MCKITTRICK in 1952 at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., when my grandfather bumped into her and an old friend of his whom she was dating. Two years later, since she was engaged to that local boy, McKittrick kept up with the Milan team from her home in Washington. In 1956, she moved to Milan and raised three children there.

All this is to say that for McKittrick, or for Kohlmeier, whose great-grandfather built Milan’s furniture factory, or for anyone else affiliated with the museum, the town’s history is also a personal history. That’s why the town’s ambivalence feels like an insult. It’s also why the Milan ’54 group seems nostalgic not simply for a team, but also for a way of life—for a time when Milan was a destination and not a departure point.

But nostalgia can turn into distraction. In 2004, for the Milan team’s 50th anniversary, The Indianapolis Star ran a relatively inoffensive story on the museum efforts—which were at the same point then as they are now—and noted that a $100-per-plate fundraiser had flopped. (So did plans to sell a Bobby Plump bobblehead.) When I asked about those events, though, McKittrick turned quiet for the first time: “Let’s not talk about that.”

Doesn’t someone need to talk about it, though? McKittrick can point to her cache of letters, voicemails, and stories from people who have made pilgrimages to Milan, but the museum averages only 40 visitors per week. (That number jumped to 74 during the week of Butler’s Final Four appearance.) Souvenir sales and the proceeds from McKittrick’s book keep the doors open for a few hours, Wednesday through Sunday, but only in an overhead-free location like Nichol’s Barber Shop and only with a volunteer staff.

And even if the museum does manage to raise the money to move into the old bank, the Milan ’54 group’s hope for a downtown renaissance still seems rigid, and maybe even naive. Sadly, that part of town has become Milan’s worst section. In addition to Nichol’s Barber Shop and the government building, you’ll find a food pantry (“operated by Milan Council of Churches”), Wayne’s Meats, B&L Motorsports, and not much else. The movie theater, which had been resurrected as a gym during my January visit, is empty again. The Milan Computer Repair displays the sun-bleached boxes of a 56k modem and an external CD drive in its windows. The iconic Milan water tower fell into disrepair long ago and is now rusted, peeling, and surrounded by scrap metal. More than half of the houses have been turned into rental units, as have many former retail locations, their storefront windows now boarded-up living rooms and kitchens. The other retail locations remain for sale or for rent.

Let’s also remember that, for a lot of people, the State Road 101 bypass looked like progress. The things the town does have going for it—the new Dollar General, a lumberyard, an assisted-living community, and the library—now form a long, thin strip of businesses and nicer houses along the bypass. If Milan seems like a fine place to live—a place that’s safe and comfortable, if a little shabby—it also seems like a place completely disconnected from McKittrick and Kohlmeier’s dream of a postcard downtown. Instead of adapting with the town, though, the Milan ’54 group simply sticks to its vision. McKittrick tried to convince the library to build downtown, even after it got Mabel Lamb’s property out on the bypass, and she doesn’t particularly like its modern look any more than its new location. “It upsets me,” she says, “but it’s there, and we’re going to support it.” When I ask about Milan’s kids, Kohlmeier replies that the revived downtown could include “a video arcade or something.”

McKittrick admits that the Indiana Hoops Hall of Fame has asked about the museum’s material, if things don’t work out. “But I don’t want an Indianapolis museum,” she says. Her counterargument—to the pothole-obsessed public, to the local boy turned East Coast cynic—remains the same: Believe. Believe in big dreams. Believe in town-sized miracles. Believe in one more upset. Even in its itinerant state, the Milan ’54 museum remains worth a visit if you’re passing through. After looking at the memorabilia, you can talk to McKittrick. She might be sitting at the desk in the back, addressing copies of Hoopla, the group’s newsletter. She might be working on the Milan ’54 application to the Indiana Historical Society’s list of endangered sites. She might even be willing to help you shake the feeling that, this time around, Milan may finally know the taste of defeat.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.