Article Thumbnail

The Lost Legacy of Harry Baals, the Fort Wayne Mayor That Indiana Wants You to Forget

The four-term Republican mayor successfully and nobly guided the city through both the Great Depression and World War II. But today, it’s as if he never existed

April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re grabbing it right by the balls. Every day for the entire month, we will be publishing a new story aimed at getting men to better consider — and cherish — their family jewels in hopes of helping prevent a diagnosis that, if caught early enough, shouldn’t prove fatal. Read everything here.

In 1953, roughly 30 seconds after concluding a story about Mayor Harry Baals — whose name he assumed was pronounced “Harry Bales” — rookie Fort Wayne radio host Bob Chase received a phone call. “Son, this is your mayor,” the voice on the other end informed the late broadcaster, “and I pronounce my name ‘Balls.’” 

Baals was entering his fourth term as mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Located along the Pennsylvania Railroad and between the St. Marys, St. Joseph and the Maumee rivers, Fort Wayne had long already established itself as an industrial artery of the Midwest. Baals had spent decades in civil service to the city, which at the time had a population of more than 130,000 people, roughly half the population it has now. Perhaps he knew that this small yet deliberate mispronunciation signaled a change.  

From the time he became postmaster in 1922 to being elected mayor in 1934 and steering the city through the Great Depression, Baals’ legacy in Fort Wayne cannot be overstated. And yet, ever since succumbing to kidney disease on May 9, 1954, Baals’ name has all but faded from the city’s history. Look no further than the Harry Baals Fiasco of 2011, when despite receiving more than 10 times the votes of other contenders in an online poll, city officials rejected naming a new downtown government building the “Harry Baals Government Center.” 

“We realize that while Harry Baals was a respected mayor, not everyone outside of Fort Wayne will know that,” Beth Malloy, Fort Wayne’s deputy mayor at the time, said in a statement. “We wanted to pick something that would reflect our pride in our community beyond the boundaries of Fort Wayne.” With that in mind, city officials chose to name the building “Citizens Square.” 

What should have been the Harry Baals Government Center

But much to their chagrin, the story of a major building in Indiana potentially being named “Harry Baals Government Center” spread across the globe. It was a viral sensation that infected every narrative about Fort Wayne history. To that end, even today, reading about Harry Baals online is a fruitless endeavor. Besides ancient, archived newspapers, every bit of information online lists the same anecdotes about him that dominated the 2011 story. 

I, however, wanted to get a feel for the real Harry Baals. I needed to stand where he stood, walk where he walked, taste and smell what he tasted and smelled. And so, I hopped in a rental car and drove southeast from Chicago, where I live, to Fort Wayne in search of Harry Baals. Four hours of cold, overcast, freight-lined highways later, I found myself standing in the vacant parking lot across from Citizens Square, where I couldn’t help but be filled with the sense that it deserved the namesake the people had demanded.

The Illinois/Indiana border in all its blurry glory

By all accounts, Harry Baals was a good man, and a better politician. Throughout one of the darkest decades in American history, he didn’t back down to private interests or cede fealty to the free market; he wielded federal grant money to keep the people of Fort Wayne afloat and safe from financial disaster throughout the Great Depression. In 1936, after successfully lobbying the federal government for $2,322,000 of Works Progress Administration money, Baals’ employed nearly 4,000 local residents through public work programs. One of which was a massive underground sewage system, along with a new treatment plant that, today, stands as a beacon of Fort Wayne’s commitment to clean drinking water. 

The Fort Wayne water filtration plant

And yet, Baals’ name is nowhere to be found on the plaque celebrating this achievement.

Another of Baals’ biggest accomplishments — the raised railroad tracks that led to massive growth in the city’s once cut-off northern neighborhoods — also lacks any recognition to the man responsible. 

Standing under the elevated Nickel Plate Road railroad tracks gives a sense of what a massive undertaking the project was. 

A few blocks from Citizens Square, in the shadow of Baals’ raised Nickel Plate Road tracks, I sat alone in a vacant park, searching for his name. But again, it was nowhere to be found. In its stead was a massive statue of the town’s founder, Anthony Wayne, riding a horse, and two plaques dedicated to Frank Freimann, the former president of the Magnavox Corporation, who moved from Napa Valley to Fort Wayne in 1930. 

Downtown statue of Major General Anthony Wayne (of Fort Wayne fame)
One of two plaques dedicated to Frank Freimann, former president of the Magnavox Corporation.

The Fort Wayne History Museum documents every aspect of Fort Wayne history — from when the city became a central railroad hub in America’s westward expansion to the Fort Wayne International Airport’s pivotal role in the U.S. postal system. 

The Fort Wayne History Museum

You’d be hard-pressed, however, to find mention of the four-term mayor who actually broke ground on the airport. Harry Baals doesn’t even appear in the Fort Wayne History Museum’s official coloring book: 

In fact, the only place Harry Baals’ memory is preserved belongs to a small trail on the outskirts of town. But even Harry Baals Drive was ultimately changed to “H.W. Baals Drive” because people reportedly kept stealing the street sign. However, just as this exhausting search to find any tangible semblance of recognition for Harry Baals in Fort Wayne started to feel completely futile, a disembodied voice rang out as I approached the sign. “Turn right onto Harry Baals Drive,” Google Maps’ entoned. “Continue on Harry Baals Drive for half a mile.” 

As for experts in local and state history, maybe they found my requests for information on Harry Baals to be silly, or maybe they feared the viral ridicule of 2011, but they repeatedly denied or ignored my interview requests. (So did Fort Wayne’s Republican Congressman Jim Banks as well as Indiana’s Republican senators Todd Young and Mike Braun.)

Then again, it’s possible that Baals gets overlooked because he was a conservative politician who railed against the privatization of public works and understood that a proficient government supports its people through funding and social programs. “The Fort Wayne GOP was definitely of the moderate wing on economic issues and socially liberal on the cultural moral issues of the day — for instance they were very hostile to KKK influence,” historian Iwan Morgan, author of Fort Wayne and the Great Depression: The New Deal Years, tells me. “Where would they fit in today’s GOP? On the Romney-Susan Collins axis, I think. In other words, on the fringe.” 

In contrast, Fort Wayne’s leading conservative group, the Allen County GOP, claims to uphold “capitalism, individual freedom and personal initiative,” and believes government efforts to support public health and social welfare programs are “the corrosive influence of socialism eat[ing] away at our nation’s foundation.” (They, too, never responded to my request for comment.)

Whatever the case may be, as I stood in Lindenwood Cemetery, just a couple of miles away from Citizens Square and the historic downtown area Harry Baals helped build, I couldn’t help but think back to his call to Bob Chase in 1953. There was a time when Harry Baals was in the mouth and on the mind of every local radio host and politician, a time when his legacy could have been preserved in textbooks and historic landmarks, cared for in the face of adversity and shielded from untimely expiry.

And yet, as far as I could tell, there’s only one place in Indiana where the legacy of Harry Baals is etched in stone: 

The final resting place of Harry Baals