Though the folks in Quayle Country don’t much cotton to the views of the “cultural elite,” you won’t hear much disagreement in these parts with the recent pronouncement that Dan Quayle is history. A number of prescient local citizens have been saying it proudly for years, and their diligent efforts to gather memorabilia during Quayle’s abbreviated term as vice president will culminate this month in the opening of an entire Dan Quayle Center and Museum.
Welcome to Huntington, Indiana (pop. 16,000), a farming community whose other industries include such things as gravel digging and the manufacture of fake fireplaces for mobile homes. Here one can eat a Quayle burger, take a drive through the brand-new Quayle Ridge housing subdivision, and buy knickknacks bearing Quayle’s likeness (and his registered trademark, no less).
Inhabitants of this sleepy burg 159 miles east of Chicago have been unflinchingly loyal to their underdog since the beginning of his curious ascent from bush-league politics to the Bush White House. They came out in droves in the summer of 1988 for his public appearance here following his appendage to the Republican presidential ticket, and they shouted down members of the press who dared pose questions regarding his draft avoidance, his lackluster academic record, and an alleged dalliance with onetime Playboy model Paula Parkinson. The eerie presence of Secret Service snipers on the courthouse eaves and Pia Zadora singing in the square signaled the beginning of what would be the town’s tense if not predictably unpleasant brush with national celebrity.
“We were inundated with media, national and even international, wanting to know what’s Huntington and who’s Dan Quayle?” remembers the museum’s public-relations director David Schenkel. “And we were all just shell-shocked.” Schenkel, a one- time Republican mayoral candidate, joined other civic leaders in forming the Dan Quayle Commemorative Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit (and, he repeatedly emphasizes, nonpartisan) organization. “We realized this was history in the making, and we decided, just because people kept coming here, that we had to put together something to show them.”
That something, an exhibit assembled in a small room at the local library, was an odd assortment of personal and political artifacts, including a lock of Quayle’s baby hair, some grammar-school report cards (no surprises), a decidedly unflattering wedding photo that later found its way into the pages of Spy magazine, his Little League uniform, and a purse that belonged to his mother. Not exactly what you’d call vice presidential material, but it appealed to the earnest as well as those with a sense of the ironic.
“It was only supposed to run during National Historic Preservation Week in May of 1991,” says Schenkel. But an unanticipated national media glibfest brought out such crowds that the exhibit was extended through summer. “From May to Labor Day we drew 12,000 people from seven different foreign countries, three provinces of Canada, and 39 states, including Alaska and Hawaii.”
With tourism figures like this, the local chamber of commerce and museum organizers have come to accept the media on their own terms. When the foundation announced in January 1993 that a permanent museum would open, Schenkel fielded 47 interviews from reporters all over the country in one week, and radio stations from Dayton, Ohio, and Indianapolis made commitments to broadcast live from the museum during its opening weekend, tentatively slated during Huntington’s Heritage Festival, which begins June 17.
Since 1991 the foundation has been deluged with donations–artifacts galore (one foundation board member who owns a trucking company plans to bring a semi full of material back from Washington this summer) and enough money and volunteer services to purchase, gut, and renovate a permanent facility, the former First Church of Christ, Scientist, an attractive 1919 honey-brick building with Doric columns, leaded-glass windows, and terrazzo floors. Local building contractors have been busy putting the finishing touches on, and, says Schenkel, wending their way through the “labyrinth of bureaucracy” associated with meeting the Americans With Disabilities Act codes.
The first floor will house the museum’s collection, touring exhibits from presidential libraries, and a gift shop. If you think there’s nothing upstairs, guess again. The former church sanctuary will be converted into a video screening room where you can see the Quayle family’s home movies on VHS, as well as footage from his public appearances while in office.
Dan Quayle’s profile has become considerably lower since he went to work at the Hudson Institute, a right-wing think tank in Indianapolis, but don’t think for a minute that you’ve seen the last of him. He may be history, but he’s busy at work on his memoirs, and he may just show up when the museum is officially dedicated sometime later this year.
The Dan Quayle Center and Museum, at the corner of Warren and Tipton, is supposed to open June 17. Hours are 10 to 4 Thursday through Saturday and 1 to 4 Sunday through June 20; call 219-356-6356 for hours after that date. Admission is free.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, Alex Jokay.