Tom Austin and Elwood are inseparable. Elwood is where Austin was born, where he grew up, went to school, got married, and worked his entire career – first as a teacher, then principal, and finally superintendent.
Elwood is in his blood, and that is why he is so well-suited to lead the Elwood Chamber of Commerce.
Austin has long valued chambers of commerce for the work they do for their communities – promoting local commerce, tourism and people. It’s the reason he maintained a membership in the Elwood Chamber on behalf of the Elwood Community School Corporation throughout his years as superintendent.
“There is an obvious relationship with what the school corporation does and what the chamber does,” he said, during a recent conversation about his involvement with the Elwood Chamber. “I’d argue that a strong chamber equates to a strong community, that the bedrock of any community is people working together for common goals.”
One of the best ways to achieve that – especially in a small community, he said – is by being part of the local chamber of commerce. It’s a philosophy he has continued to practice after his retirement. Austin and his wife, Beverly, have maintained a civic membership in the chamber since 2009. In January, he followed the retiring Dave Berkemeier as board president, a position he also held in 2012.
“The chamber addresses the quality of life,” Austin continued, “and gives people a chance to enjoy community activities. And my final point – and this is just my opinion – I think there’s a civic duty to belong because if you want to make a community better, you want to be part of the solution and not part of the outside looking in.”
Austin’s friends and colleagues readily attest to his devotion to Elwood.
“When I think of Tom Austin,” said Chamber Director Marcy Fry, “I think of someone who cares deeply about our children and the Elwood Community School Corporation, someone who has a big heart for Elwood.”
From the chamber side, she added, “Tom has been a great teacher. I count myself lucky that during my first year as director, he served as board president. Not only was he a great teacher, but a mentor too. His enthusiasm is contagious. Elwood is truly lucky to have a class act guy like Tom Austin.”
Pam Gish, the chamber’s administrative assistant and bookkeeper, works closely with Austin on financial issues, and says that of his many admirable qualities, she most appreciates his sense of humor and his attention to detail.
“Tom Austin is the most OCD guy I know…” she said with a laugh, “…Organized, Community-minded, and Dedicated.” And then, growing serious, she adds, “Tom is someone I respect and listen to, and for me, he’s a definite go-to person.”
Dave Berkemeier is another friend and colleague, who says his admiration for Austin knows no bounds.
“I’ve known Tom for 16 years,” he said during a recent telephone call, “and I have always respected him and his positions even though I didn’t always agree with him.
“Now that I’ve gotten to know him over the past six to eight years,” Berkemeier continued, “I know there is nobody who works harder for the community and supports the community as much as Tom Austin. I am honored to call him a close friend.”
Advocating for the betterment of his home town is one of Austin’s favorite board activities, and he is quick to point to the contributions of others.
“I enjoy working with the people and the varied skill sets they bring to the board,” he said. “I especially enjoy their commitment to the community, as well as to each other. I appreciate the board members’ ability to think out of the box as we discuss chamber issues and issues involving interrelations involving the chamber and the city.”
He says it’s been a joy working with members of the various boards, noting specifically that he loves hearing their ideas that enable them to arrive at concrete solutions to specific challenges.
Looking back and leaping forward
Born in Elwood’s Mercy Hospital during the height of the Truman years, Austin grew up on South I Street, the only child of Jerry and Dannie Austin. His mother was the city’s official Welcome Wagon greeter, and his father owned and operated Austin & Son Grocery. They – along with a special aunt, Beulah Murphy, who was a Ball State faculty member for upward of 30 years and whom he calls “the most pervasive influence on my realization of how valuable education is” – instilled their old-fashioned ethics that Austin carries with him to this day.
Austin’s passion for education led to a teaching career, which was facilitated in large part by his other passion … golf. It was a sport he discovered at the age of 6 and always excelled at, winning numerous awards for Wendell Willkie High, as well as himself. When he entered Ball State University in the fall of ’68, he did so with the help of a golf scholarship.
After earning his degree, he went to work for the Elwood Community School Corporation in January 1973, teaching social studies. By late 1994, he had worked his way up to superintendent, a position he held until he retired in 2010.
Over the years, he said, he witnessed many changes in his city.
“From my vantage point,” he said, “one of the big changes I saw in Elwood was the decline of student population due to the departure of General Motors from this county.”
Austin noted that during the last five years of his career, some 3,000 jobs that impacted Elwood were lost due to the Anderson-based plant closure.
“With the loss of a major employer, Elwood faced the challenges of redefining itself,” he explained. “Fortunately, we have been able to attract other businesses and industries, and some of them are expanding, which is a boost for the local workforce.”
One such plant is Red Gold, which is headquartered in Elwood. Austin calls the company “an exceptionally positive community partner for the chamber.”
Looking forward, the new chamber board president lays out a couple of his pet goals.
“I want to establish a stronger relationship with the Elwood Community Development Corporation,” he said. “In addition, I want the chamber to embrace, as much as it can, the initiatives undertaken by the city’s senior leadership.”
Keeping that thought, Austin has only praise for Mayor Todd Jones, saying, “The fact that we have a young, creative, aggressive mayor bodes well for fostering an environment where many positive changes are possible.”
Austin’s deep affection for his city has been evidenced over the years by his continued community involvement. Never tiring, Austin has for years served on the boards of St. Vincent Mercy Hospital Foundation, the Optimist Club, the Elwood Redevelopment Commission, Elwood Community Development Corporation and, of course, the Elwood Chamber of Commerce. He also is a member of First United Methodist Church.
Elwood has gone through many cycles over its 150-plus year history, he said, but it still has many valuable resources left to tap into.
“First,” he said, “Elwood is a place where living is exceptionally affordable. Second, it’s a place to raise a family where you feel safe. And third, it makes you feel welcome and gives you a chance to be part of a lot of community activities.”
Elwood has offered these amenities to Austin for as long as he’s been around. He married Beverly in 1977, raised two sons and a daughter, built a successful career, and poured himself into his community. All in Elwood.
“I want to underscore how important Elwood has been to me and my family’s life,” he said, “and I will give back for as long as I can.” ●