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The irrepressible Connie Van Horn

October 14, 2012

Ron and Connie Van Horn during the period just prior to their marriage in 1965.

When Connie Van Horn passed away April 8, the Culver community lost one of its most colorful and irrepressible citizens, a sort of quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) crusader who helped shut down a toxic landfill and called to account abuses of power and privilege, as she saw them, locally and beyond.

Van Horn, born Constance Johnson, grew up on a farm outside Toto and attended North Judson schools, where she was a "very, very proud Bluejay," notes her daughter, Jennifer, with a smile. "She would do Bluejays cheers silently when Culver played North Judson," even long after Van Horn had made Culver her home.

Van Horn's father was a farmer and mother was a teacher, though Connie never fulfilled her dream of having her own mother as teacher (her mother's doing, actually).

She graduated from high school in Judson in 1963, soon thereafter meeting future husband Ron Van Horn at a Republican event both their parents had attended (with their mother’s intentions of setting them up)-- a harbinger of things to come for lifelong Republican Connie and family.

Connie and Ron dated about six months before Ron asked Connie to marry him, the two aiming to wed before Connie's mother passed away from the colon cancer she had been fighting. They succeeded in June 1965; Connie's mother died two months after the wedding.

The two resided for a while in Bass Lake, having little Harry Ronald II in 1967 (the first baby of the year in Starke County, born New Years' Day). Babies Eric (1968) and Jennifer (1974) would follow, but in the meantime, Ron Sr. had started (in 1964) working for Ray Wicker's Ford Garage at 415 Lake Shore Drive in Culver, the site of today's Culver Banquets.

It just made sense, then, for the Van Horn family to move to Culver in 1968, where they loved the community, its churches, and its people. And adjacent to their longtime home on Academy Road was Mr. T's drug store, a favorite haunt of the children's, recalls Jennifer, who holds fond memories of the soda fountain there.

"She would watch out for the business (Mr. T's) from crime," says Jennifer, who recalls her mother was involved in thwarting criminal activity at the store by way of her vigilance. "She was a busybody kind of person!"

In November, 1969, the Van Horns bought out Wicker and the Ford garage and dealership took on their name (they sold it in 1976 to the Marshall brothers). During this time, they also ran Van Horn Trucking (for which they owned their own semi-truck), and Van Horn trees and shrubs.

"Mom was always the bookkeeper," explains Jennifer, who adds the tree and shrub business was something of a pet project for Connie, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject.

Additionally, Ron Van Horn was a Culver police officer at the time as well, working with town marshal Sam Madonna. After the sale of the Ford business, Ron began driving for a private trucking company and Connie devoted her attention to raising the couple's children -- and a great deal more.

"She started to get more involved in the community in the early `80s," notes Jennifer.

Her political involvement, according to an email Connie Van Horn wrote in 2007, began in 1980 when she became a precinct committeewoman and served on a judge-elect's campaign committee.

"I was smitten with politics," she wrote.

Connie was appointed a Marshall County Councilwoman in 1984, serving in that position for 10 years; for 12 years she served as a member of the Culver Union Township Advisory Board. She also helped bring cable television to Culver, managing the office for CCI Cable on Main Street in 1984, though by then the family had moved to the Van Horns' current residence on Redwood Road and ironically were unable to enjoy the coveted cable television, chuckles Jennifer.

Starting in February, 1984, she became involved in planning for an annual summer festival to draw attention -- and people -- to Culver. Committees including Charles Edgington, Jim Bonine, Jim Moss, Jean Rakich, Joe Plankis, Robert Tanguy, Roy Shepard, Judy Currens, Kevin Bonine, Mike Maddox, Clara Hansen, Elmer Hahn, Roderick Martindale, Shirley Baker, Cheryl (Schrimsher) Hyndman, Tricia Aemmer Pitts, Shellie Shepherd and others brought the first Culver Lake Fest to fruition that summer.

"She was parade chairman," recalls Jennifer, who says she spent countless hours at Lake Fest and other meetings, at her mother's knee. "She always made sure the parade had 100 entries -- that was her goal...she wanted Culver to have something no other town had, like the (airplane) flyovers."

Connie Van Horn, says her daughter, "always wanted the community to have something special She was always out working to make things good for the town." And beyond the town. Jennifer also recalls attending rallies, dinners, and a host of other functions related to the Republican party, not just locally, but on a county, state, and even nationwide basis.

"She knew (former vice president) Dan Quayle, Senator Dick Lugar -- we saw George Bush Sr. She was always taking us to events like that, whenever there was a chance," says Jennifer. Quayle, in fact, "pushed through the crowd to say hi" to Connie and Jennifer during a whistle stop tour in South Bend, according to Connie.

Connie was secretary for more than 22 years for another irrepressible Culverite, Gen. Bob Tanguy, Jennifer notes, and she often conspired with kindred spirit and equally undaunted local activist Thelma Hodges. She was good friends, recalls Jennifer, with Ray Roth of WSBT.

"She was a news feeder! She got all the media coverage she could (for causes she believed in)."

She even helped make the news, working for Fred and Judy Karst at the Culver Citizen newspaper during the 1990s.

Connie Van Horn, says her daughter, was the sort whom people called when they needed to get something done, or at least learn how to. One such call began one of Van Horn's most occasionally hair-raising -- and arguably most accomplished -- adventure: her involvement in Supporters to Oppose Pollution, or STOP.

Connie Van Horn certainly wasn't alone in her efforts with the organization, which was made up of multi-county residents concerned with health and other problems seeming to center around the Four County Landfill, several miles south of Culver -- but occupying the same water source aquifer -- in Fulton County. The 61.5 acre landfill had been disposing of hazardous wastes at its site at least since its notification of such in 1980.

Members of STOP began investigating health and water problems they believed were associated with the landfill, and managed to eventually have the matter investigated, which the Environmental Protection Agency was actively doing by 1985. Besides violations of groundwater monitoring requirements, the landfill was also found to be storing hazardous waste in unlined containers, among other violations.
According to court records, the U.S. district court found against Environmental Waste Control, who operated the landfill, and "ordered the offending landfill permanently closed (along with certain other corrective measures) and assessed civil fines amounting to almost $3,000,000."

According to Connie Van Horn, she appeared more than 100 times on television news coverage of the landfill proceedings, and twice on national CBS news.

"That was a great accomplishment, when that place closed," continues Jennifer. "She was really proud of that, and the Group and everything they had done.”

"If my mother could have had her way, she would have been an investigator," she smiles. "She loved intrigue! But she had a strong sense of justice."

And she wasn't shy, adds Jennifer. "I don't know how many letters to the editor she wrote; and she wasn't afraid to stand up to some of the people on the different boards around the town and county. She fought for a lot of things. I'm pretty vocal because of her!

"She was straightforward," she adds, "but she really cared about Culver, and about her family."

Connie was a regular election worker, and this time of year would have pressed everyone to get out and vote, something she made sure her husband and children did at each election.

Culver Comm. High School grads of years past can also thank Connie for her dogged efforts to bring notables to speak at the graduation ceremonies of her three children, including U.S. Senator Richard Luger, then-mayor of Indianapolis Richard Hudnut, and U.S. Congressman John Hiler.

In more recent years, Van Horn become involved in the Friends of the Culver Public Library, and helped launch a weekly genealogy group at the library, where she assisted in developing the collection of the Center for Culver History museum. Connie Van Horn --also an avid Cubs fan and fanatical devotee of Tony Orlando's music -- held court daily at Cafe Max on Main Street, even back in the days when it was the Home Restaurant, when, says Jennifer, Connie would be joined by local mainstays like Eunice Schrimsher and June Sage.
--Late Culverite was force in local politics, activism--

The names and faces changed through the years, and Friday lunches at the VFW were added to the routine, but animated conversations which often informed the next crusade for Van Horn and company, continued unabated. That decades-old tradition continued up to December, 2011, when Jennifer said she "should have known" something was amiss, once her mother began missing those cherished chat sessions about all things Culver and beyond.

Connie entered the hospital Feb. 13 of this year, having had a stroke. After a few days' rally near the end, she passed away on Easter Sunday. She left several grandchildren and countless cherished memories, such as those of Jennifer, who spoke with her mother "ten times a day."

And, while Connie Van Horn may have been something of a local crusader, she was so with a sense of the humorous and absurd in many an issue, self-deprecation, and laughter, notes Jennifer, which made others want to join her. And join her or oppose her, agree with her or disagree, there's no denying the impact she made on Culver and its people.

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