Former Caterpillar executive Byron DeHaan has been busy in his retirement, and the local arts community is benefiting substantially from his work. From painting to singing—and his most visible endeavor, a book of poetry—DeHaan embodies lifelong learning.
Art & Business
DeHaan was raised in the Chicago suburbs as a second generation American who went on to serve his country twice. “My mother and three grandparents were immigrants from The Netherlands, so in our home, the Dutch language was frequently spoken—none of which I’ve retained,” he said. “I volunteered for the Navy at age 17. But neither then nor in a recall to sea duty in 1950-1951 did I ever get shot at, so I don’t have any war stories.”
After securing a Bachelor degree in industrial management from the University of Kansas, he went to work for Caterpillar in Peoria. “My plan was to depart for greener pastures after a few years. But as luck would have it, I had cast my lot with a great company—with an interesting product line attracting enormous customer preference around the world. So the ‘few years’ expanded to 42; I retired in 1991 as director of Public Affairs,” DeHaan said.
In 1967, a special opportunity came his way. “I was appointed by Gov. Otto Kerner to a two-year term as chair of the Illinois Human Relation Commissions, at that time the state’s principal civil rights agency,” he said. “Kerner’s successor, Richard Ogilvie, asked me to stay on for an additional two-year term. This was a part-time responsibility, so there was no need to vacate my Caterpillar desk.”
His career allowed him the opportunity to get to know the early greats of Caterpillar Inc.—and forced him into his later love affair with writing. “I had a rare opportunity to work closely with some early Cat CEOs, notably Louis Neumiller, Harmon Eberhard, and Bill Blackie. In connection with a 1954 assignment to write Cat’s first book-length history, 50 Years on Tracks, I was privileged to have a lot of time with Murray Baker, then in his early 80s and still quite sharp. Baker had been pretty much a one-man show in establishing Cat in Peoria in the form of the Holt Caterpillar Company in 1909,” DeHaan said.
Long before the history book, DeHaan first was exposed to the arts through his church choir, he said. “At age nine, my mother enrolled me in an apprentice choir to a superb Episcopal choir—all male, in the Anglican mode. I ‘graduated’ to the senior choir a year later—and to a regimen of three weekly practices, a concert schedule, choir camps in the summer, and pay of $2 per month. I’ve enjoyed singing ever since. One of the first things I did upon arrival in Peoria was join the Orpheus Club. For the past 14 years, I’ve been in the back row of the Bradley Community Chorus, under able direction of John Jost.”
Among his other recent forays into music: playing ethnic folk music for local retirement and nursing homes and performing German carols at the Pettengill-Morron House Christmas Candlelight events.
Making Time For Art
Even though DeHaan had been active in music since childhood—and his job required extensive writing—it wasn’t until later that a fluke decision led him to his passion. “Upon retiring from Cat, I told my wife, Sylvia, that I wanted to take four unrelated courses at Bradley before making any other plans: historical geology, Shakespeare, music history, and art appreciation. One thing led to another,” he said. “For example, the art appreciation led to six semesters of painting with Professor Ken Hoffman and two semesters of ceramics with Randy Carlson—not to mention 12 more credit hours of art history. The music history led to about 20 credit hours in Constance Hall, including voice training with Kerry Walters and piano with Janet Kaizer. Together with other courses in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, I’ve logged more than 200 credit hours in retirement—most recently an enjoyable four semesters at ICC.”
At Bradley, DeHaan had the good fortune to be enrolled in a contemporary poetry course and a poetry workshop, both led by current Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein. “I have a two-shelf poetry library but never really tried my own hand at the art until ‘turned on’ by Kevin—and later at ICC by assistant professor Jim Sullivan. With encouragement from Kevin, I entered a poem, ‘Requiem for Mozart and Us,’ in the 1999 BU poetry competition. With similar encouragement from Jim, I entered a poem, ‘Mad Cows & Bureaucrats,’ in the 2004 ICC competition. Both poems won.”
Those successes led to Breviary, a collection of 32 of DeHaan’s works—including, incidentally, the two winning poems that started it all. “The book, published last December, was the idea of Jane Converse, president of Converse Publishing. Not totally sold on the idea, I first put copies of the 32 poems in three-ring notebooks and gave them to Kevin and Jim with two questions: is this worth doing? If so, would you write an endorsement for the back cover? When answers to both came back ‘yes,’ we went to press,” he said.
About the name of the book, DeHaan explained, “A ‘breviary’ is a small book, typically carried by seminarians and priests, with a mixed content of prayers for the canonical hours, hymns, and psalms. Similarly, my Breviary is a small book with varied themes and content: history, places my wife and I have been, comment on current events, a bit of personal philosophy, some whimsy, and attempts at humor—it’s a mix. In a time when most new poetry seems to be about feelings, my poems try to tell stories that are reader-friendly.”
He firmly believes in the value of poetry, both to the individual reader and to society as a whole. “Poetry has been called the rhythmic union of language and sound—to relate a story, create a mood or image, make a point. One of the eight great arts, it’s older than recorded history. I’d like to see a lot more poetry in local schools and meeting halls.”
And as far as meeting halls are concerned, DeHaan said the new Central Illinois Regional Museum (CIRM), planned for Museum Square downtown, is a great place to start. “The unusually broad concept for CIRM was basically the idea of Congressman Ray LaHood. In the past, he’d been approached by several central Illinois cultural and museum groups regarding availability of public funds. About four years ago, Ray assembled representatives of seven of these groups, declaring, ‘There aren’t enough public or private dollars to satisfy all of your separate requests, so your groups need to come together and work together.’”
The result of this cohesiveness is the Museum Collaboration Group, which LaHood asked DeHaan to co-chair. “Following were six investigatory bus trips to other cities and further visits by Jim Richerson, CEO of Lakeview Museum, and myself,” he said. “To boil it down, we learned three important lessons out of this research: take a broad regional approach—don’t just be a Peoria museum; locate the center of the region (in every case, this was downtown); and cast a broad net—avoid balkanization of museum efforts. Out of this came a concept of a large, regional museum for the visual arts, history, science, technology, and nature—and including a new digital planetarium and an IMAX theatre—to be located, along with a new Caterpillar Worldwide Visitor Center, on the seven-acre Museum Square.”
DeHaan said CIRM is, of course, a temporary name. “We’ll respond to community wishes with a permanent name at a later date. Lakeview Museum—with a repositioned board expanded to include representation from the collaborators—has taken a leading role. But it’s incorrect to view the project as simply moving Lakeview from its park location to downtown. This is a much broader-gauge project. Together with the Cat Visitor Center, Museum Square will be a $100 million development that will be a landmark addition to the economic and cultural life of central Illinois.”
If you’re wondering how this new entity will affect you, DeHaan said he’s come up with a mental picture to try to explain the benefits. “I like to visualize the individual at the center of an arts triangle. One side of this triangle symbolizes opportunities for personal enjoyment and growth as a witness—an onlooker, if you will. Here, the Civic Center offers the Peoria Symphony, Opera Illinois, two ballet companies, choral groups that perform there, and much more. But the performance circle extends well beyond that to include frequent events at Dingeldine and Hartmann centers at Bradley, ICC Performing Arts Center, Peoria Players and Corn Stock theatres, Eureka College offerings—not to mention Barn II Theatre and other dinner venues. There are superb special music performances at local churches, and there are exhibits to be seen at Bradley’s Heuser Art Center, Peoria Art Guild, ICC, the Contemporary Art Center—and a succession of world-class exhibits at Lakeview.”
But the arts ought to be more than a spectator sport, he said. “It’s important—and enjoyable—to occasionally be on the playing field. So I label the second leg of the theatre arts triangle ‘participation.’ A healthy, lively community has many opportunities for participation: singing in a church choir, playing an instrument in an orchestra or band, acting in amateur theatre, taking memorable photographs, writing a story for a weekly paper—or trying one’s hand at a few lines of poetry. And what a thrill, after a lot of effort, to produce a painting that a family member deems good enough to hang on the wall.”
The third leg of the arts triangle symbolizes quality of life, DeHaan said. “Even if the individual doesn’t attend the symphony, opera, or theatre; can’t sing or play a note; can’t draw or write a line—even if he has no particular yen to do these things—there remains the larger question of the kind of community we want to live in and raise our families. Isn’t it a community where beauty—and pursuit of beauty through the arts—can enliven and enrich our daily lives?”
His former company, Caterpillar, is one business that understands this question. “In 1981, Cat became one of the first corporations anywhere in the world to extend its matching gift programs to cultural groups and the arts,” he said. “That’s why Cat has not only pledged $7 million to the new CIRM museum project, but also put $4 million additional on the table to leverage matching museum gifts from employees, retirees, and the community at large. The rationale of matching gifts is being embraced by a rising tide of firms and philanthropies. Their rationale is simply this: things that are merely useful will tend to be generated by those who produce or use them. But it’s the arts, more than anything, that can brighten the byways of life and humanize us. They need and merit cultivation and encouragement from the people, businesses, unions, churches, schools, hospitals, and other entities of this beautiful central Illinois part of the world.”
Breviary can be purchased at the Lakeview Museum Gift Shop. AA!
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