Dan Wire knows Fort Wayne’s waters. He grew up on them, fished and swam in them when they were at their dirtiest, and fought to hold them back when they were at their highest. Now he’s made it his life’s work to see that the rest of us get to know the three rivers, and love them as he does.
"This is just my passion," Wire said.
"He loves being on the water," said his wife, Judi. "He inherited that love from being out on the water with his grandfather."
Captain Leslie Black skippered motor yachts off the New England coast and taught Wire that "water is the tonic of life."
Wire’s father, Robert, had a passion for the water, as well, and was a neighborhood leader who became an early advocate for flood control.
Before he retired after 33 years as a teacher, Dan headed the industrial arts department at North Side High School.
Now he is the unofficial captain of an ambitious community voyage to dramatically raise appreciation for and usage of the St. Joseph, Maumee and St. Marys rivers.
His tireless advocacy for the rivers, his principled approach to their development, and his ability to get thousands of his fellow citizens to share his vision have led The Journal Gazette to make Dan Wire 2016’s Citizen of the Year.
Wire’s river work – often unpaid – takes many forms. He leads students from The Crossing or church volunteers in excursions to clear the riverbanks of invasive plants and trees that often obscure the view of Fort Wayne’s three waterways.
Schools and service organizations seek him as a speaker. He runs the Tri-State Watershed Alliance, which focuses on regional water quality, and has served on virtually every river-related action or advocacy group that’s been organized since the 1980s, including the city’s Sewer Advisory Group, the Invent Tomorrow group Friends of the River and the mayor’s Riverfront Advisory Committee. He has also been a supervisor for the Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District.
But Wire’s most effective technique for getting others to share his passion for the rivers is simply to get people out on them.
Among those who got a Dan Wire river tour early on were Mark Becker and his wife, Cheri.
Today, Mark Becker is in charge of the riverfront development project for the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department. The Wires took the Beckers on their first river cruise a few years ago, when Mark was deputy mayor.
They grilled chicken on the back of the old pontoon Wire calls the Junk-A-Du – a Cajun term for "anything that floats" – and Mark saw Fort Wayne from the waters for the first time. "It just changes your whole perspective of the city," he said.
"We just kept putting as many people as I could on the river, just to show them, this could be cool, this is something that the community could grow from," Wire said. "I caught the attention of a few of those people, and they said, ‘We need to do something.’"
For four years, Wire provided pontoon rides and other activities at IPFW’s RiverFest, which was canceled three years ago. He also worked with Three Rivers Festival Executive Director Jack Hammer to put more of its emphasis on the rivers. At 2014’s festival, with the help of Steel Dynamics Inc., Wire used a new floating dock at Headwaters Park to launch his most ambitious effort to get Fort Wayne residents onto the water.
"We got 10 pontoons," Wire recalled. "Every three minutes, there was a pontoon leaving with 10 people on it. We had docents on them, talking about the riverfront, and water quality, and history."
At the end of the 21/2-day effort, Wire said, "we were 12 people shy of putting 4,000 people on the river."
"His passion for the rivers has brought a lot of people to them," Hammer said earlier this year.
Any doubt Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana are serious about the riverfront development project was washed away in 2016.
The riverfront project was the centerpiece in the region’s successful effort to qualify for $42 million in Regional Cities funds. City Council approved $10 million from the Legacy Fund for phase one of the project, highlighted by a promenade on the St. Marys; the Community Foundation pledged new funds as well.
Fort Wayne’s Democratic mayor and a majority of its Republican-dominated council are committed to the project, and many other community leaders are helping it advance.
But making the rivers the central attraction of the city and the region was an idea at first taken seriously by just a few. And Wire’s role in the process has been unique.
"Take the knowledge of everybody else that’s been involved, add it all together, and Dan probably has more," said Don Steininger, who serves on the Riverfront Development Committee with Wire and worked through the Community Foundation of Fort Wayne to help Wire get the pontoon boat he’s used for many of the river tours. "He’s just so passionate – a great communicator," Steininger said. "He could talk for hours about the river."
Steininger, who says he was one of those who once had never really appreciated the rivers, now believes the focus needs to be on the streams themselves, and not the shoreline development. "People are starting to focus on the river," he said. "I think they’re going to start taking better care of the river."
Wire would agree. Though he embraces the project as an economic development opportunity, he wants to enhance Fort Wayne’s rivers rather than exploit them.
"We’re going to do right by the environment," Wire says. "I think everything we want to do with our riverfront can be better for our two-legged, winged and finned friends. We’ve got to do good by who’s living in the river, and who’s living along the river."
Like others who support the city’s downtown riverfront project, he argues that reviving focus on the rivers will improve the quality of life in Fort Wayne.
"It’s just the right thing for the community to do," he said.
For Wire, today’s opportunities for river development are here because of progress made and lessons learned over decades.
When he was a boy, growing up in the same house he lives in today a few blocks north of North Side High School, the river was virtually an open sewer after a rainstorm. "We had a great big CSO (combined-sewer-overflow pipe) right in front of our house. Our rivers were just plain dumping grounds," he said. Now, as the city implements an EPA-approved plan to prevent such overflows, the waters of the three rivers are getting cleaner.
When he was a young man, Wire was one of the thousands of Fort Wayne residents who fought the Floods of 1978 and 1982, sandbagging, running sump pumps and even telling the city where to build clay dikes to protect north side neighborhoods.
A major levee-building project in the 1990s and other improvements have reduced the danger of flooding in many parts of Fort Wayne, though Wire cautions that a lot of water still has to move through Fort Wayne’s downtown.
The better answer, he said, is creating open areas where excess water can be absorbed, areas he calls "sponges." The riverfront project will create "more sponges and fewer pipes," Wire said.
As the river projects advance, Wire hopes to hand off some of his varied tasks to others. "I can’t keep doing everything," he said. "My plate’s pretty full. So my focus next year is, I’m going to just keep trying to provide opportunities to see the river."
Wire is modest about the part he is playing in developing Fort Wayne’s waters and shores.
"I don’t view myself as an environmentalist," he said. "I don’t view myself as an ecologist. And I am not a falluvial geomorphologist" – a scientist who studies riverways.
"But I think they appreciate local knowledge. That, I think primarily, is what I bring to the table."