Are we truly appreciating the living connections with our past before they themselves pass into history?
I'm a voracious student of history, so I jumped with both feet nearly three years ago at an opportunity to meet a living link to Northwest Indiana's Civil War past. I had no clue how profoundly a little old lady at Wittenberg Village, a senior assisted living facility, could impact me personally.
My first knowledge of Crown Point's Mable Swisher came as excavator Ken Ziese and I were working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to replace the worn, broken or missing headstones on region Civil War veterans' graves. The headstone replacements became a public service project of passion following a 2011 assignment I undertook for The Times to retell the stories of Northwest Indiana Civil War veterans.
Among the dozens of worn original government-issued markers Ziese and I targeted for replacement was that of Union Army Sgt. Henry Wise, a veteran of the 99th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. The headstone on his Crown Point grave was severely worn.
While Wise's Historic Maplewood Cemetery headstone crumbled, another of his most indelible life works remained a fixture of downtown Crown Point. You see, after the war — surviving four years of disease, battle and general hell on Earth — Wise returned to Crown Point and established the Henry Wise Brickyard.
The business produced 500,000 bricks for the original central portion of what is now the Old Lake County Courthouse on the city's square. So it was fitting when Wise's grave became the first of more than 80 in our project to receive a more weather-impervious granite marker. Great personal satisfaction came when Ziese and I set his new stone by hand.
My connection to Wise deepened when cemetery administrator Tom Hawes told me of a living relative of this great local figure. I was shocked to learn Sgt. Wise's niece — the daughter of his youngest brother — was alive and well, living in a city assisted-living facility.
Mable (Wise) Swisher was 93 when I met her in 2011. Sharp as a tack, Mable immediately regaled me with stories of her father, George Wise, during the Civil War era. At the age of about 13 in 1861, George had been too young to enlist in the Union Army, but it didn't stop him from trying, Mable recalled of the family stories she heard growing up.
Her uncle, Henry Wise, the eldest of his siblings, had to send George home when he tried to follow the brothers off to war.
Mable never actually knew her uncle Henry. He died in 1917, a year before Mable was born. But she had wonderful photos and clear memories of Henry's wife, Eliza, who had lived with Mable's family in Eliza's later years.
My initial visit to Mable — and her husband, decorated World War II veteran Charlie — quickly multiplied into several more meetings. I couldn't get enough of their stories, and they seemingly couldn't get enough of my twin boys — 8 years old when they first met — who came along to hear the stories.
Mable would give the best hugs to my sons. A beautiful couple they were, but Mable and Charlie never had children of their own.
When Charlie died in 2012, it truly felt like a personal loss to all of us. After his wake and funeral, I vowed to visit Mable more often.
I could say that work, a new baby who grew into a toddler — and life in general — got in the way. But I deeply wish I had made the time.
Beyond her ties to the history of bygone eras, Mable Swisher's life was defined by her volunteerism and involvement in her community — from local historical groups to Old Courthouse preservation efforts. I learned of her death Saturday from a local member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, another historical group to which Mable was a member.
She was 95.
The feeling of loss is similar to when my grandparents — who are all gone now — died. I didn't make enough time for them either.
It's a stark reminder to make time. Listen to the great and rich stories of our aging generations. Their voices provide profound connections to our past. Their humanity reminds us of the best things within ourselves.