Commentary by Dick Wolfsie
The Ropkey Armor Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana has closed after more than 35 years. It was one of the finest private collections in the country. The contents will find homes in various museums around the country.
The founder, military historian and Korean War Veteran Fred Ropkey, passed away four years ago. As a tribute, I am re-running remarks I made at his funeral service in 2013. Check out my interview at WISHTV.com with Lani, Fred’s wife of over 30 years in the next week or so.
Fred Ropkey was no fan of war. Few people are. Yet he knew that every tank, aircraft and piece of artillery he recovered was not only a work of exquisite design, but combined they represented the hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives that had been lost—or saved.
His passion got its roots early. At age eight, his parents gave him a World War I sword and a Civil War pistol belonging to his great-grandfather. At 16 he bought an armored World War II scout car and drove it to school. He stood up in the auditorium at Pike High School the day after Pearl Harbor and “reported” the Japanese attack to his fellow students. He tried to enlist in the Marines, but he was too young. He would later serve during the Korean conflict as a battalion commander.
Fred’s collection of arms grew and he stowed his thousands of acquisitions on the sprawling 100 acres of family land on the northwest side of Indianapolis. The original idea was to simply find a place to restore those treasures, more a warehouse than a showcase. So in 2005, Fred moved everything to Crawfordsville, signaling a new vision and purpose. “Build it and they will come,” his wife Lani recalls him saying. Then he added: “Who would think that a little pole barn on a 50-acre cornfield in Crawfordsville could change so many lives?” It was no longer simply a standing building; it was a building that stood for something. He called it the Ropkey Armor Museum.
Fred and Lani fully realized the impact the collection had on people. “Are you familiar with that tank?” he once asked an older man who was examining the vehicle. “I practically lived in it,” said the World War II veteran who revealed that he had not seen his “old girl” in 40 years. “Thank you,” he said to Fred. “My life has now come full circle.” Later, according to Fred, the veteran retreated to a hotel room with a bottle of bourbon and wrote an entire account of his experiences, those notes now part of the museum’s Wall of Heroes.
Fred loved digging into history, uncovering the human stories behind each piece he salvaged. He found tanks, aircraft, even parts of ships in barns or buried underground. Fred was always mystified by the lack of appreciation for these historical artifacts. The mission was simple: No matter the degree of disrepair, it was an obligation to resurrect the piece, honoring those who had lived and died in it. “Everything in the museum runs, flies, or floats, but the cannons don’t fire,” says Skip, his long-time assistant and mechanic, who uses the original spec manuals to make repairs.
I was honored to be Fred’s friend. We toured both facilities for television segments on WISH-TV. I’ve ridden in Sherman Tanks and sailed around a lake on a Vietnam War-era vintage patrol boat. I will miss Fred. I won’t miss the harrowing ride in a Russian bi-plane.
Fred Ropkey could converse knowledgeably (and endlessly) about every U.S. combat mission in World War II. At the end of Fred’s life, he chose not to share his plight with others, instead enduring his cancer pain privately.
It was the one battle Fred Ropkey did not want to talk about.
(Go to Indyfringe.org to see times and dates for Dick’s six performances of The Art of the Jewish Joke.)