Retired White County Commissioner John Heimlich has a new honor to add to his list of achievements. At the White County Economic Development Annual Luncheon on Feb. 25, he received the coveted Sagamore of the Wabash award.
One of our state’s most prestigious honors, the Sagamore is awarded to Hoosiers who have rendered distinguished service to the state or governor. Honorees are personally selected by the governor. Past recipients include teachers, community leaders, astronauts, and artists.
Heimlich’s extraordinary contributions can be summed up in one word: service. Born and raised in White County, Heimlich has dedicated his life to the service of others. He was a teacher, coach, and a dedicated public servant for 25 years.
R O O T S O N T H E FA R M
Though Heimlich grew up on a farm just west of Reynolds, his dad, John C. Heimlich Sr., was not a farmer. He worked for Mobil Oil. The elder Heimlich purchased the farm in 1948.
Heimlich loved growing up on the farm. By the time he was 9 or 10 years old, he was already driving a truck for his friends, George and Clarence Bossung. Four years later, he said, he began working for Roger and Lawrence Wiese in Reynolds. “I continued to work on the farm during summers when I was at college,” Heimlich said.
A 1968 graduate of North White High School, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Purdue University in 1972. While at Purdue University, Heimlich met Barb Neucks. Barb, from Evansville, majored in food and nutrition. The couple married and raised their sons, Bryan and Michael, on the family farm. Married for 47 years, Heimlich and his wife still live there.
Right out of college Heimlich taught history and government at North White High School for four years. He also coached football, basketball and baseball. He later served on the North White school board for eight years.
While he enjoyed teaching and coaching, Heimlich’s love of agriculture was always there. After talking with his good friend, Roger Wiese, he decided to leave education behind and pursue a life on the farm to raise grain and pigs.
C O M M U N I T Y I N V O LV E M E N T
It was another Reynolds friend, Dean Fleck, who, after witnessing Heimlich’s intellect and community involvement, encouraged him to seek political office. “I’ve had a lifelong interest in the politics and the process,” Heimlich said. Fleck, a White County commissioner, asked Heimlich to run for his seat. With Barb’s support, Heimlich ran for the position and won. He was sworn into office on Jan. 1, 1997, and held that seat until his retirement on Jan. 31, 2021.
A lifelong member of REMC, Heimlich had served on the cooperative’s nominating committee in the 1990s. His uncle, Ross Westfall, had been an REMC director, represented the REMC on Indiana’s statewide electric cooperative service association board, and served as the association’s president. “I’ve attended numerous REMC annual meetings,” Heimlich said. “I remember well the meetings at North White High School, back when REMC sold electrical appliances that were on display at those meetings.”
C O U N T Y A G R E E N E N E R G Y L E A D E R
Heimlich’s REMC connection became an asset as he fulfilled his duties as White County commissioner. Under his leadership, White County emerged as a leader in green energy regionally, in the state and globally. The REMC played a part in that economic development strategy.
“When I became a commissioner, I was told that our only priorities were bridges and roads,” Heimlich said. As you look at White County’s economic development strides over the 25 years Heimlich served, it is evident that the vision was unlimited.
White County partnered with Wabash Valley Power Alliance, the REMC’s power provider, in the Liberty Landfill Project. Wabash Valley, an electric generation and transmission cooperative, opened the Liberty I plant in 2005 with Liberty II coming online in 2010.
In 2019, Liberty III. became Wabash Valley’s 16th landfill gas-to-energy generating plant in its power supply portfolio. The project is a partnership with Waste Management of Indiana’s landfill located near Buffalo. “This was a natural evolution … turning a White County asset into energy creation,” Heimlich said.
At about the time Liberty I. was launched, wind farm investors began talking with White County commissioners, Heimlich said. Benton County was the first Indiana county to aggressively embrace wind power.
“It was White County landowners who created the good partnership with the wind farms,” Heimlich said. “The commissioners made sure that there were good road agreements. That was paramount for the county.
“We are fortunate to have a good partnership with EDP Renewables,” Heimlich said. “The county did not experience backlash on the wind farms.”
PA S T, P R E S E N T, F U T U R E … A N D PA R T N E R S H I P S
Another major project connection with White County officials and Carroll White REMC is the Mid-America Commerce Park. “The partnership with REMC worked out well as it was the favorable REMC rates that made it attractive to create an industrial park and entice innovative industries to move there,” Heimlich said. White County also received a $100,000 USDA grant, managed by REMC, for this project.
Reflecting on the future, Heimlich said, “It will be interesting how solar evolves.” This project will be based on decisions by landowners and the solar companies, like it is with the windmills.
When he began his tenure as a White County commissioner, Heimlich said he would not have imagined all that has evolved.
While serving as president of the White County commissioners, he could easily spend 30 hours a week on county business. “I was fortunate to work with Commissioner David Diener, Commissioner Steve Burton, and Donya Tirpak, assistant. Our commissioners and council in White County work well together — unlike in many counties. There were no personal agendas.”
A lifelong, dedicated public servant, Heimlich enthusiastically encourages young people to get involved in politics. “Get involved … that’s the only way to make a difference. It’s comfortable to sit back and complain. But making your voice heard … that can make the difference.”