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Rappelling off the Centier bank tower for the United Way
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Rappelling off the Centier bank tower for the United Way


"Please don't die," my wife texted me right before I was about to slip into a harness and rappel down the side of the Centier Centre bank tower in Merrillville.

She later clarified she was only half-joking.

I've survived the Iraq War, ungodly 120-degree Iraqi heat, Army basic training, a 25-mile ruck march, car crashes, fist fights, Region air pollution, food poisoning, televised golf, Saturday morning traffic on Indianapolis Boulevard in Schererville and a barista, having run out of iced coffee, offering me an Americano instead.

But it still seemed daunting to teeter over the edge of the five-story, 98-foot-tall office tower and descend with little more than a nylon rope between me and a resounding "splat."

Still, it was for a good cause.

The Lake Area United Way, partnering with Centier Bank and The Times Media Co., staged the Over The Edge fundraiser to raise about $40,000 for struggling working families in Lake County. 

"These are people who are working, but they can't afford the basic necessities," Lake Area United Way President and CEO Lisa Daugherty said. "They're working hard, sometimes multiple jobs, but they're not necessarily earning enough in those jobs to afford basics like owning a home or transportation. You've got to own a car to live in this area. Child care is expensive. They don't have a safety net because they're working. They're not eligible for public assistance, so in some ways they're more vulnerable. We're in some ways creating a safety net for them. It's a hand up, not a hand out."

Rappellers paid a $95 registration fee and had to raise $1,000 in pledges from friends, family and colleagues to get a chance to be like Batman or Spider-Man and slide down the side of a building for a few glorious minutes. Centier was eager to volunteer use of its landmark glassy office tower, knowing it would help those who needed it, Centier Bank Vice President of Community and Business Development Anthony Contrucci said.

"One in four families in Lake County fall into a category called ALICE," he said. "What that basically means is that they're Asset-Limited, Income-Restrained and Employed. That means they're above the poverty line but they're making decisions on a weekly or monthly basis: 'Do I get my car fixed or do I get my child to a doctor? They literally can't get to the end of the month. They're the struggling working families of Northwest Indiana, and they're 25 percent of the population. That inspired Centier Bank to step up and be part of this. We are a community bank and this year celebrated our 123rd anniversary. We also say we've been around for 123 years because the community has been around to support us through the hard times. They've allowed us to serve them, in some cases the same families and same businesses for generations, and we don't take that lightly."

About 60 people will walk down the glassy horizontal face of the bright blue office tower at 600 East 84th Avenue near the intersection of U.S. 30 and Interstate 65 between the media and VIP preview Friday evening and the actual event from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The public is invited to come out and watch and there will be food trucks, music, general festivities and lots and lots of photo opportunities.

VIPs who braved the opportunity to mountaineer down what the skyscraper database Emporis says is the tallest building in Merrillville included Centier President and Board Chairman Michael Schrage, his wife Jill Schrage, State Sen. Eddie Melton, State Rep. Hal Slager, Purdue University Northwest mascot Leo and Chicago Blackhawks mascot Tommy Hawk.

In addition to all the dignitaries, they also gave a few ink-stained wretches in the media a chance to experience the thrilling climb down the Centier Centre in advance, so we could publicize it and generate more excitement.

No daredevil, I had never been rappelling before. The closest I'd even come to it was watching the the Yosemite National Park rock climbing documentary "Valley Uprising" on Netflix.

To train, I went to Six Flags Great America the previous weekend, hoping death-defying speeds, vertical loops and the sensation of zero-gravity weightlessness would prepare me for a white-knuckle descent from such a daunting height. I was still apprehensive as the fateful day grew nearer, taking note of news stories like the three YouTubers who plunged to their deaths off a waterfall and the Chinese billionaire who fell to his death while posing for a photo in France. 

"He only fell 49 feet," I fretted. "That's only half the height of the Centier building."

All the worst case scenarios played out in my mind: a snapped rope, an equipment failure, a free fall to the unforgiving concrete below, death, a broken spine, paralysis, even smashing through a glass window like John McClane crashing through the Nakatomi Plaza in "Die Hard" and getting all cut up.

But as they said in the Army, fear is weakness leaving the body. No wait, that was pain is weakness leaving the body. Not much help.

But I knew Over the Edge was an established national organization that's staged similar rappelling events for charity all over the country, for nonprofits like the American Cancer Society, the Special Olympics and Give Kids the World Village. They were professionals and I could trust their competence.

I grew more worried knowing my descent would be extensively photographed and Facebook-lived by Times Photographer John Watkins since I likely would be stiff, awkward and nervous on the way down. I wanted a practice run so I could build confidence and develop the muscle memory needed to look cool or at least somewhat less embarrassing while rappelling down a building for the first time.

"That's crazy," a colleague said. "I wouldn't want to do down even once."

When I got there, upbeat music was blaring, spectators were assembled and a inflatable doll was blowing in the wind. The vibe was fun and light-hearted. Then they asked me to fill out a waiver that ominously said in all caps, "I UNDERSTAND THAT THE ACTIVITIES ARE INHERENTLY DANGEROUS AND THAT I COULD BE RISKING SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH, BY PARTICIPATING IN THE ACTIVITIES AND THAT MY PARTICIPATION IN THE ACTIVITIES IS ENTIRELY VOLUNTARY. I HEREBY PERSONALLY ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS."


But as I rode the elevator up to the fifth floor and went into the staging area, I started feeling more and more pumped up, especially as they strapped on the harness and gear. I didn't wait for the instructor to don my gloves, helmet and GoPro camera. I balled my hands into fists, swung my arms from side to side, hopped around as one would in the locker room getting psyched up before a game. 

After multiple safety checks of the gear, we ascended a stairwell to the roof that gave you a bird's eye view of all the office towers, strip malls and traffic in Merrillville and beyond. The instructor Phil showed us how the equipment worked, how we'd control the gradual descent, and the hand signal to make if the autoblock locked up, so they could release more rope and we could shimmy it to get it unstuck.

"You seem eager," he said, inviting me to test the rig out from the modest height of a stepladder.

I wasn't eager, just nervous.

It felt like it would be strenuous when I leaned all my weight back into the sitting position from the stepladder and I was just suspended there. He showed me how to slide down without losing control. But the demonstration was soon over, all too fast.

"Can you show me how to get out of a lock again?" I asked while near the edge, possible subconsciously try to buy more time. It was difficult to edge out onto the side of the building, to trust that the ropes would bear your weight even though you were just told they could support two cars.

Many other rappellers dangled backwards over the ledge with both hands splayed out, but I clung on to the rope for dear life before making my first tentative steps down. The thought flashed through my mind to call the whole thing off at the last possible minute. Leaning back off the side of the tower with the ground 100 feet below was by far the scariest part, but don't just take my word for it.

"It was very tough leaning over. That's the hard part," Slager said after safely reaching the ground. "Once you start down, it's not too bad... It was for a good cause, not because it was something I was eager to do."

The winds were strong, and my descent was slow partly because I was clutching the rope too tightly by my hip and only discovered about halfway down I was holding it too far forward, when I should have given it more slack. I gingerly released length after length of rope, trying to match it with each step.

It was like a grueling long-distance run in the Army: I just kept reassuring myself it would all be over soon. But once it was finally over, once I was standing on solid ground, I wanted nothing more than to go again.

My heart was pumping, my blood was flowing, I couldn't shut up after all the excitement. I was just pulsing with adrenaline.

Again, don't take my word for it.

"It was exhilarating. It was fun," Melton said before his kids ran up and hugged him. "You don't know what to expect when climbing down a building. But I would definitely do it again."


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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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