- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2017

VINCENNES, Ind. (AP) - Most everyone who drives past Tecumseh-Harrison Elementary School at 2116 N. Second St. notices the brightly colored 20-foot plume proudly displayed beside the front door.

Over the years, the eagle feather - a nod to the school’s namesake, Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh - has become part of the school’s identity and arguably one of the most distinctive characteristics about the building.

But how exactly did it get there?


The original school building opened its doors in the fall of 1906, but no one seems to be sure of the exact date. Local historian Richard Day said the school did not become known as Tecumseh School until 1916; it was originally called “No. 7” in the days when the local schools were all numbered.

A fourth-grade teacher at the time, Grace Burba, is credited with naming the school after Tecumseh, whose name is linked in history with Indiana Territory Governor and future U.S. President William Henry Harrison.

The two names were tied together in local school history as well in 1975, when Harrison School, just up the street near what is now Vincennes University’s Isaac K. Beckes Student Union, was closed and students were merged with Tecumseh.

The feather, however, didn’t come into the picture until much later.

During Bill Hopper’s tenure as principal from 1971 until 2001, he instituted an artist-in-residence program (which lasted for several years but has fallen off in recent years due to budget constraints) that brought artists into the school to work on different projects with the kids.

“It’s a wonderful program that allowed children to actually get hands-on work with an artist,” Hopper said.

Vincennes native and current Florida resident Melissa Gurchiek, who taught at Tecumseh-Harrison for 23 years and served as principal for over 10 years, noted that there were quite a few benefits from instituting the program.

“Children that participate in an arts program feel a tremendous amount of success and satisfaction,” she said. “It was all about making children feel self-worth . (and) it also made them very appreciative of the arts.”

But it wasn’t until Bloomington-based artist Joe LaMantia came along during the 1995-96 school year that the feather idea took shape. Upon his invitation to serve as artist-in-residence, Hopper said administrators filled him in on the history of the school, noting that an eagle was the school’s mascot, and asked for an art project that students could tackle.

Building a giant-sized feather, LaMantia said, was the perfect choice because it symbolized a couple different things. On one level, the feather symbolizes bravery in Native American culture and is often given to a “brave,” or Native American warrior, who has done a courageous deed. Since Tecumseh was a Shawnee chieftain, it was a natural way to pay homage to the history behind the building’s name.

“But the feather is also all about the history of the school in terms of what (Hopper) did,” LaMantia said. “I have a lot of respect for him. He did incredible things there at Tecumseh, like bringing the arts to the kids, so the feather is kind of a token to him for all that he’s done for the children and the school.”

With that inspiration in mind, LaMantia, who Hopper said is known for building outdoor artwork, set his sights on a telephone pole outside the school’s Second Street doors. That pole would serve as the feather’s stem, which would be “sandwiched” by layers of plywood bolted to the pole, LaMantia said. Blocks and scraps of wood carved and painted to look like plumage would then be glued to those plywood layers.

Over a two-week period, kids did the majority of the painting and gluing on the project, but they weren’t the only ones who had a hand in the colorful creation. Various local companies at the time, including PSI Energy, Fabco and Bolk Industrial Supply, donated all sorts of different materials to create the giant feather. Local parents also got in on the action and came to the school on a “family night” to help paint.

“Everyone was hugely excited about the feather,” Gurchiek said. “We had a huge celebration when (PSI Energy) came and dropped it in its permanent location on the front lawn.”

It truly was, Hopper said, a community-wide labor of love to create the folk art piece, so he was glad to hear that the Vincennes Community School Corp. has decided to incorporate it into the upcoming redesign of the building, part of a $38 million, three-year effort to restore the city’s four neighborhood schools.

Eberwine Avenue will be closed to make room for Tecumseh-Harrison’s new entrance and the iconic feather that currently stands outside the Second Street doors will be moved to its new home near that entryway.

“We’re taking a look at what each item is before we make the decision of does it stay or does it go. This was just one of those things where people would say, ‘Oh, you have to keep the feather,’” principal Jono Connor said. “It’s just part of the history of the school.”

Gurchiek agreed and said she still remembers using the feather as a guidepost whenever folks visiting the school needed to know which door to use.

“It is an institution at our school,” Gurchiek said. “We (told) students and parents to enter the school at the ‘feather door.’”


All these years later, LaMantia continues to hold the feather project in high esteem, both because of what it symbolized and because of what it taught the kids.

“This is one of the best projects I’ve ever done,” he said. “One of the most important things is creating a sense of community by having the whole school participate. That in itself says a lot. I think those kids come back (to the school) and say, ‘I worked on that.’”

Turns out, he’s right: Both students and administrators who were at Tecumseh-Harrison at the time still feel a fresh sense of pride when they look back on the project.

Katie Marie Bowers, who helped out as a fourth-grader, recalled that each student actually got to sign the inside of the feather before it was erected outside.

“The feather project was by far my fondest memory of going to Tecumseh,” she said. “I think we all knew the feather was going to be used to represent (the school) for many years.”

Bowers’ daughter, Madi, is now a second-grader at Tecumseh-Harrison and was very interested in learning about the history of the feather as well as the eagle talons that LaMantia also helped construct, which are still in the school’s gym.

Bowers also has a 4-year-old named Boone who will soon start kindergarten at the school. She has told the feather story to her kids many times, Bowers said, and they never tire of the tall tale.

“They love hearing about it,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve always said that I hope the feather is still standing when my kids attend school. … It would be really neat if the new class of kiddos could experience the same and maybe restore it before it is displayed.

“Tecumseh gave me a lot of good memories, but being part of something that is still standing … years later, that’s pretty incredible.”


Source: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, https://bit.ly/2jUYxOq


Information from: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, https://www.vincennes.com

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