That's right: the late, great Harry Baals – who began the week as the namesake of an obscure local Internet prank but has, thanks to everybody from radio's Bob and Tom and Rush Limbaugh to TV's Jimmy Kimmel, turned the city into a global punch line almost overnight.
And Baals (pronounced “balls,” of course, or there wouldn't be a story) would probably enjoy the joke – although that probably says a lot more about the state of our culture than it does about a man whose record in and out of office deserves recognition, not ridicule.
“He would laugh, but you never heard people making fun of his name in those days,” said Walter P. Helmke, who was a young lawyer and son of the city attorney when he delivered an absentee ballot just before the 1954 Republican primary to Baals' room at Parkview Hospital, where he was battling a kidney disease that claimed his life a few days later at age 67.
“(Baals) was very down to earth and was liked by everybody. What upsets me is that some people are saying naming the building for him would ‘embarrass' the city. That's not fair,” said Helmke, who served two terms as Allen County prosecutor and one term as state senator and is the father of former Mayor Paul Helmke.
And therein lies the irony of what has happened this week because of the city's innocent decision to seek the public's advice before selecting a name for the Renaissance Square building on East Berry Street, which is being renovated into offices for city and county officials. Deputy Mayor Beth Malloy says she never intended to insult Baals and is tired of “coming off like a shrew” for suggesting in news reports that the city would prefer another name despite the fact that, of the more than 35,000 online votes before voting was reported closed this morning, Baals is the runaway leader.
And the fact is that, even though most of those votes have been cast this week by people who know only Baals' name, his accomplishments have earned this four-term mayor far more recognition than honors he has received: a tarnished bronze plaque stuck to a railroad overpass and a little-used street that was renamed in the 1990s because people kept stealing the signs.
For a man whose parents came to Fort Wayne from Toledo aboard a canal boat in 1851, Baals' resume includes a remarkable number of accomplishments that benefit the city to this day. In 1926 – eight years before he was first elected – historian B.J. Griswold included Baals in his book “Builders of Greater Fort Wayne,” noting Baals' service as manager at General Electric and as postmaster despite having only a high school education. It was under his leadership that planning for a new post office on Harrison Street began – a building that still houses federal courts and other offices.
His chief accomplishment as mayor was the $9 million elevation of the Nickel Plate Railroad tracks downtown, which until 1955 created a bottleneck that stifled growth on the north side. But that was hardly his only legacy as mayor, which included re-election in 1938, 1942 and 1951. The city's sewage treatment plant, Johnny Appleseed Park and “Circumurban” highway (Coliseum Boulevard) were all completed or planned during his watch.
Malloy insists her resistance to naming the new building after Baals has nothing to do with his name and everything to do with the position he held. The county will share space in the new building, but as mayor Baals represented only the city.
“But I've never had this much fun,” Malloy said. “I've been singing ‘I'm just wild about Harry' all day long.”
As well she should. City officials couldn't have devised a marketing scheme this effective if they had tried. If they don't name the building after Baals (and Helmke thinks they should) who will get the honor – the city's longest-serving mayor?
No way. His name was Bill Hosey. Get it?
When Baals died, The News-Sentinel's farewell editorial predicted that his imprint would “be permanently enshrined in the city's history and memory.” If democracy (not to mention simple fairness) means anything, that is exactly what will happen – if not at the new building, somehow, someplace. After all, Baals earned it – just as we, thanks to a week of grade-school laughter at his expense, owe it.
But then, maybe I'm biased. I went to Ball State.
Honored mayorName: Harry Baals
Served: 1934-1947; 1951-1954, his death
Credits: Include the $9 million elevation of the Nickel Plate Railroad tracks that helped northside growth.