In early July 2003, Decatur Mayor Fred Isch became known to nearly all northeast Indiana.
The wiry redhead, then in his early 70s, driving his humble white Chevy Cavalier, never would have wanted it for himself, never sought it out and probably didn’t know what to do with all the attention he garnered.
But when the St. Marys River shot out from between its banks, drowning a working-class neighborhood and forcing its residents to abandon their homes, Isch became a consistent and constant presence.
And if you were holding the purse strings at FEMA, he was likely a thorn in your side.
The record-setting Flood of ’03 – a miserable seven-day stretch that July – became the event where everyone outside Decatur got to know the person his constituents already knew as Fred.
They saw him on television during the evening news, urging his community to continue the flood fight or begging federal officials to provide money to help the homeowners. His name peppered newspaper articles for years, expressing outrage at the pokey federal response and continuing to advocate for his small city.
“He was a real bulldog when he thought something right needed to be done,” said his son, Tony Isch. “He really took it personally.... It took a lot out of him, but that never stopped.”
On Tuesday, the 81-year-old former mayor passed away in his assisted living apartment. His son speculated his heart gave out after a lengthy battle with pulmonary hypertension.
What a heart it was.
In his little office tucked into the back of the city hall, his door was never closed. I met him there dozens of times, coming in through the back door and greeted by a big smile and sometimes a hug. He always called me “Becky,” a complete disregard for my preference and put him in the company of only my grandmother. Sometimes, if my old Golden retriever was in my car, Isch came outside to give her a kiss and a pet. They had the same hair color, he always said.
He occupied the most unpretentious mayor’s office ever, its walls covered with family pictures, snapshots of his grandchildren on giant pumpkins, campaign parade photos, and whatever else kept that smile on his face.
We walked the neighborhoods together, during the flood and after. I sat in city council meetings, taking notes while he asked the city leaders to make tax revenue available for flood buyouts.
Turned down for the big FEMA dollars initially, Isch went after small ones, looking to buy the homes damaged by the flood and tear them down to keep it from ever happening again.
In 2006, three years after the flood, Isch still urged local residents to come to FEMA meetings, to be a human face on the community’s need for the money to demolish 35 more houses.
Isch was more, though, than a small-town mayor.
“He just gave me a great example of being a dad, and a father,” his son said, emotion evident in his voice.
A Korean war veteran, Fred Isch came from humble beginnings, with a father who walked out on the family and left him to help his mother with three younger siblings.
“He had some tough times,” his son said. “I think that’s why he wanted to give back to the community.”
He worked two years as a police officer before going to work for the local newspaper’s production department, where he worked for more than 30 years.
Isch coached his daughter’s softball teams, his son’s pony league teams, and the junior high football teams. He served on the city council before becoming mayor.
And when an unexpected Republican primary challenger upended him in the spring of 2007, ending his string of five terms in office, Isch promised to continue to work until midnight, Dec. 31, 2007, the moment his term ended.
After he lost the mayor’s office, Isch went back to his hobbies, including gardening.
He loved to grow gigantic pumpkins, Tony Isch said.
The grandkids would come over and plant the seeds. When the pumpkins would get large enough, they would carve their names in the skin with a large nail. By autumn, there was a 200-pound pumpkin with the grandkid’s name on it.
Current Decatur Mayor John Schultz, a Democrat who defeated the man who ousted Isch, said he couldn’t say enough nice things about his predecessor.
Hearing Isch say how much he loved Decatur, Schultz said he was often puzzled. But now, as mayor himself, he said he understands, and appreciated all Isch did for the city.
“He didn’t do things because it was the political thing to do,” he said. “He did things because it was the right thing.
“We will miss him, immensely.”
Isch never told him how to run the city, but if Schultz had a question, Isch was there with guidance.
And his legacy as a fighter and advocate for his community will continue for a long time.
“We haven’t filled up the first sandbag since I’ve been mayor,” Schultz said.
“Because he took care of it.”