MILAN, Ind. – If it was just a water tower, Milan would have torn it down years ago. Ugly old thing, it hasn’t held actual water in years. Old man Thompson built it in 1924 next to his business, the Milan Furniture Company, to give the fire department something to work with if his shop ever caught fire. In 1954 one of Thompson’s boys, Tommy Thompson, painted it black with white lettering to honor the greatest basketball story ever told, the Milan miracle of 1954:
The furniture company closed years ago, and soon was torn down. For decades the water tower has stood sentry above a gravel lot, falling into inevitable decline. Rust turned the top of the tower, a down-sloping triangular lid, to dirty orange. After all those years and all that sun, the rest of the tower settled into an ugly gray. Even the graffiti — only vandals were giving the old erector set any attention — was starting to fade.
“An eyesore,” Tony Veldhaus calls the old water tower. “I was afraid they’d tear it down.”
Veldhaus was born in Milan — in a hospital where a U.S. post office now stands — and graduated from Milan High (class of ’73). He played center on the last great Milan team, that 1973 bunch that reached semistate of the single-class state tournament. He went to Hanover for college ball but came back to Milan, living in the same house where his parents raised him on their 100-acre farm. Even worked for the Milan school board for several years.
“I love it here,” he says. “I’m proud to be from Milan. And I’m so glad they did that.”
Veldhaus is pointing at the freshly painted water tower. We’re standing under it, two people in the crowd of about 75 Saturday morning when Milan officials rededicated the renovated water tower in front of a dais featuring six players from that 1954 season, one cheerleader and Mary Lou Wood, ex-Milan coach Marvin Wood’s widow, who drove down from Mishiwaka.
The ceremony had begun with a few words from Tom Kohlmeier, Milan class of 1969, board member of the Milan Museum — and great-grandson of furniture scion Tommy Thompson, who had the water tower painted in 1954.
“On behalf of a fan base that extends around the world, I’d like to thank Milan for having the foresight to save it,” Kohlmeier is telling the crowd. “It’s a symbol of achievement and hope, and a reminder to future generations that anything is possible.”
He’s talking about the water tower, but didn’t I tell you? It’s so much more than that.