[Editor’s note: Limestone Post is proud to announce a new column by media powerhouse Michael G. Glab, called Big Mike’s B-town. Each article will be a profile of someone he has interviewed on his WFHB interview show, Big Talk!]
“I’m one of those guys that make tourists driving through the county go, ‘Well, there’s a real rustic.’” So says local political institution Carp Combs.
The Perry Township trustee for three decades, Carp argues Indiana’s unique take on the township system is needed now more than ever. Due to loss of jobs and the ongoing slow-ish recovery from the Great Recession, more and more people are in need of food and other economic assistance. He and his crew on South Walnut Street provide relief services to the hungry and even, occasionally, cut down the noxious weeds growing in a few homeowners’ lots.
“We are the grassroots link to Jeffersonian democracy,” he says. Thomas Jefferson devised the township system two and a half centuries ago.
A man of many hats (he owns a treasured collection of fedoras), Combs and staff work with homeless shelters, food pantries, job-training programs, and many others to help township residents through tough times. “People who just ran out of options,” he describes them.
“I’ve matured. I used to be pretty strong on self-reliance. It’s been an awakening. Even though we think things are in our control, they’re not even close to being in our control.”
His Perry Township constituency is 45,000 people. “I guarantee you, you will interact with us far more regularly than you will with Washington, DC,” he says.
A retired Monroe County schoolteacher, Combs moonlighted for a year as a teacher at Wabash Valley Correctional Center. “You taught with both your eyes and ears open,” he says. “Prison is an underground; everybody’s got a scam going.”
Some — not many — call him by his given name, Dan. “Very few of us are just one person,” he says. “I’ve been really lucky in my life to do a lot of different things, and each one of those things is a different person. I still can’t imagine walking into that prison every day after I spent most of my teenaged years trying to stay out.”
He spent countless days fishing when he got out of the army back in the ’80s. His brother gave him the nickname that’s stayed with him ever since. “Carp’s this raconteur, a hilljack, a rustic,” Combs says of himself. “Life is fun. For most of us, it should be.”
Last week, life wasn’t so fun for Carp and his son, Levi. Combs fils works for the City of Bloomington and is a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. The AFSCME local president made some disparaging remarks about Muslims on the local’s private Facebook page. Levi thought the remarks should be publicized. Carp obliged him, posting the remarks on his own Timeline because it would get more views.
The remarks — he describes them as hateful — jarred Carp, a loyal union member most of his adult life. “That’s everything we’ve taught our children not to think,” he says.
The words and subsequent public airing of them earned the local president a rebuke from the state AFSCME office. “I’m really proud that my son went through with it,” Carp says.
Today’s contentious political climate jars Combs as well. “My wife and I travel as much as we can. We get out and see the world. When people speak English, they ask us about America, what’s happening to us. Things like, ‘You’re always fighting over there,’” he says.
Combs has a two-pronged response: “First, we have to call hate when we see it,” then, “We have to stop shouting at each other.”
For five years, Combs wrote a column twice a week for The Herald-Times, commenting on Monroe County and the world. His viewpoint was unique — that of a schoolteacher, seasoned politician, tutor to prisoners about to re-enter the free world, woodchopper, and dedicated angler. He knows real poverty. “My grandparents lived in a corner of Appalachia so poor they didn’t even have coal to heat their home,” he says. He’d visit them every summer. “For two weeks, I lived on boxes of government food commodities. That’s what they lived on.”
Now, his office is charged with helping the poorest of people find their next meal and even, on occasion, burying them. “Somebody has to do it,” he says. “We try not to write ’em off when they’re alive. The idea of writing them off when they’re passed on …, well, I’m a good Rooseveltian liberal.”