December 12, 2011

Riley on McCulloch: heroically voicing

Oscar C. McCulloch moved to Indianapolis from Wisconsin at a terrible time in the state's history. Hurt by a bank panic, its citizens were poverty-stricken and despondent. Becoming the minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church in 1877, he wanted to do something. He soon became one of the strongest charity organizers the state had ever seen.

McCulloch emphasized the need to focus on individual suffering, and to find the causes of poverty and other obstacles in life in order to address them. One of those causes, he initially believed, was genetic (early on, he was an advocate of eugenics) before realizing that anyone can fall on hard times, regardless of background. Seeking inspiration from his religion, he often called upon Biblical stories and parables of Jesus. "We can do nothing, unless we see, as he saw, the divine humanity in each one,— broken, disfigured, deformed, all but obliterated," McCulloch once wrote. "This, and this only, gives the impulse to personal charity... As each blade of grass differs from each other, so each nature is different from each other." He further saw inspiration in literature and his speeches are full of references to Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and even Bret Harte.

When McCulloch died in 1891, Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley honored him with a poem for his funeral; it was printed in the Indianapolis Journal on December 12, 1891 (two days after McCulloch's death). Titled simply as "Oscar C. McCulloch," the poem asks its readers to avoid "sighs and tears" and, instead, honor him by continuing his work:

What would best please our friend, in token of
    The sense of our great loss?—Our sighs and tears?
Nay, these he fought against through all his years,
    Heroically voicing, high above
Grief's ceaseless minor, moaning like a dove,
    The paean triumphant that the soldier hears,
Scaling the walls of death, midst shouts and cheers,
    The old Flag laughing in his eyes' last love.

Nay, then, to pleasure him were it not meet
    To yield him bravely, as his fate arrives?—
Drape him in radiant roses, head and feet,
    And be partakers, while his work survives,
Of his fair fame,—paying the tribute sweet
    To all humanity—our nobler lives.

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