Duane Chattin stays busy — even in retirement
By Bernie Schmitt
Duane Chattin spends time with his dog Sadie and working at the library these days, if he’s not helping others eliminate invasive plant species, riding trains or taking pictures.
A well-known face in Vincennes, Chattin retired from his job as director of public information at Vincennes University last February, after 34 and a half years.
“I miss the people at VU,” he said. “I enjoyed my career. VU has always been a part of my life. I’d always been told that when it was time to retire I’d know.
“I enjoyed meeting lots of people, things changed every year, and I got to see students develop and mature, my daughters and many others,” he said. “I just felt it was time to move on to do other things.”
He is the quintessential community leader. Over the years he has been involved everything from volunteering for various boards and civic organizations (Civitan) to serving 28 years on the Vincennes City Council. He has a lengthy list of affiliations and awards to his credit. He enjoys it.
Environmentalism is one of his passions, which is why he was helping others clear away invasive plant species – like winter creeper and Asian honeysuckle – at Camp Wildwood a few weeks ago, surviving a swollen earlobe and a sting on his knee when he unwittingly disturbed a nest of yellow jackets.
“You missed it,” he said. “I did the darnedest dance ever when that happened.”
Chattin is a 1971 graduate of Lincoln High School, and like many others he enjoys the school’s annual Homecoming events. He attended Vincennes University then earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and journalism from Indiana University in 1975.
He has two daughters, Katie, who lives in Indianapolis, and Lisa, who lives in Denver. Brenda, his wife of 24 years, died unexpectedly in 2006, from an aneurysm.
It was a great shock to the family, especially his youngest daughter, Lisa, who was still in high school.
“It was a sad time,” he said. “But they (his daughters) helped me get through it.
“I think Lisa had the hardest time,” he said. “She spoke at her commencement and touched on that time and having to deal the cards you are dealt. I was so proud of her. I’m proud of both of them.”
“I’m probably as encouraged as I ever have been. Vincennes seems to be firing on all cylinders.”— Duane Chattin
He and Brenda met while collecting money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. They married in 1980. They were involved in the Humane Society, the Jaycees, and the Audubon Society in Vincennes. Together, with friends, they helped save a local, prehistoric Indian mound.
“In a small town it just takes a few people who can get together and get things done,” Chattin said. “That’s the beauty of a small town.”
Not so serious
He also is the first to tell you that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s worn a pumpkin suit to sell produce for VU Alumni Scholarships, and he’s walked parade routes in a watermelon suit.
He is fond of talking to tourists about the Buffalo Trace. So his daughter Lisa bought him a buffalo hat (it goes with his collection of buffalo statuettes). He has since collected a number of novelty hats, and he sometimes wears some of them.
“Part of it is not taking myself too seriously,” he said. “I don’t mind wearing a silly hat now and then if it gets someone to smile.”
He attributes this attitude to his father, the late Dr. Herbert Chattin. As a medical doctor he saw death far too often. Dr. Chattin believed he cured more people with humor than medication.
“He always said that none of us are getting out of here alive,” Chattin said, “so we shouldn’t take life so seriously.”
In December, Chattin finished his 28th year serving on the Vincennes City Council. He was always interested in politics, having studied it in college. He first ran for a Council seat in 1982 because he sought changes to the city’s wretched animal shelter.
“I was president of the Humane Society and we had studied the animal shelter,” he said. “It was in bad shape and there was no money. We had gone to Bloomington to see what a good shelter should be like, and then we gave a presentation — slide show and all — to the City Council.
“But during the presentation, Council members seem to talk amongst themselves, not really paying attention,” he said. “That ticked me off and I decided to run for a seat on the City Council so we could build a new animal shelter.”
He won his first election, but a new city animal shelter didn’t materialize until much later. In his 12th year as a councilman, the city finally came up with $65,000 and the Humane Society matched it, to build the shelter that exists today.
“I learned a lot from that,” he said. “I learned that you have to persevere and be patient. Sometimes it takes a long time to get things done.”
At the end of his 12th year he decided not to run again because his aunt, Belle Kasting, had been elected mayor. After that, in 2004, he ran for City Council again and retained that seat until he was defeated this past November.
“I thought when I retired (from VU) that I’d just ride trains (another avocation), but then I thought, maybe I’d try for one more term,” he said of the Council.
But, in 2019 the election results swung the other way. He had already felt that this was his “last hurrah” (a reference to the Pulitzer-prize winning book by Edwin O’Connor), though he had hoped to serve the citizens of Vincennes one last time.
“I guess it’s the voters’ way of encouraging me to take more train trips,” he said.
After the election that’s just what he did (though the trip was already planned), traveling to New York City to take in the sites and enjoy what the Big Apple has to offer.
“I had no plans,” he said.
Despite that, he walked to various locales, visiting Alexander Hamiton’s home, Central Park (while it was snowing), and Irish pubs. By luck he got a personal tour of Lincoln Center, saw the opera “Le Nozze di Figaro,” took in a free concert by the Gothic Jazzmen, and on a clear day looked out from the Empire State Building’s observation tower.
He still has ideas he hopes the city of Vincennes may one day implement. One of those comes from his daughter Katie, who is the assistant curator for campus art at Indiana University. He’d like to have what is known as a “rotating sculpture” site, an outdoor area dedicated to different artists’ sculptures every two years. He’s working with Andrew Jendrzejewski and others to get this done in Vincennes.
“It takes time, money, and we have to find a location,” Chattin said.
Chattin is known for his love of passenger trains, traveling on Amtrak as often as he can. He often rides the rails to Denver to see his daughter Lisa. He’s been to the West Coast and back, to Washington, D.C., and other locales.
He is a council member from Indiana for the Rail Passengers Association, an organization that advocates for passenger trains. The organization meets twice a year, having one of its meetings in Washington, D.C., where members lobby on Capitol Hill.
“We’ve seen an attitude change there,” he said. “More have come around to see the value of passenger rail transportation.”
His fascination with trains started as a child when his family took a train to St. Louis for a baseball game. He recalls family reunions where relatives rode trains from Washington to Vincennes.
“In a small town it just takes a few people who can get together and get things done, That’s the beauty of a small town.”Duane Chattin
“I enjoy riding trains,” he said. “I like visiting the people on trains. A lot of people ride for a lot of other reasons. Some are riding short distances for doctor’s appointments or jobs. It’s not just for vacations.”
He also is a member of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a group trying to get high-speed passenger trains routes from Chicago to Evansville and other locations.
“Some don’t see the value in trains,” he said. “But there were seven trains a day between Milwaukee to Chicago, and now they are increasing it to 10. More and more people are taking these shorter trips.”
Chattin claims he doesn’t attend any more community events than before his retirement, yet he seems to get to a lot of things, taking pictures and making them available on social media.
“I don’t really think about it,” he said. “I just enjoy it. I don’t carry my camera everywhere and I can’t go to everything. But if I’m there I’ll probably take a picture, often with just my phone.
“Facebook just makes people more aware,” he said. “People enjoy seeing what’s going on in their town, especially those who have moved away.”
He’s also been giving visitors tours of the Old Cathedral and the Old Cathedral Library, having filled in for someone who was ill.
“It’s good to see how visitors view our community,” he said. “Most have a good experience here and they like our restaurants and our hospitality. Sometimes we don’t always appreciate what we have.”
He recently took on a new, part-time job, too, at the Knox County Public Library.
“It’s still serving the public,” he said. “It’s a new chapter in my life and I’m happy to be doing it.”
He is proud of his hometown, and believes that the slow and steady investment in a variety of ways over the years is now paying off.
“I’m probably as encouraged as I ever have been,” he said about Vincennes. “We seem to be firing on all cylinders.”