Judy painting street lamps 96

Judy Olinger – A force to be reckoned with in shaping and revitalizing 4th Street

Judy painting street lamps 96First, one truism must be acknowledged: Judy (Nahler) Olinger is a woman of exquisite taste and talent.

Without those two qualities, she could never have accomplished all that she has.

And what, you may wonder, has she accomplished?

The Huntingburg native is responsible for almost single-handedly revitalizing Huntingburg, Indiana’s 4th Street Historic (and shopping) District by sheer determination and force of will.

Visitors to the area today discover charming storefronts built a century or more ago housing eclectic and attractive shops and restaurants.

Most of the buildings are awash in warm period hues and feature colorful awnings and attractive signage.

That wasn’t always the case — not by a long shot.

Olinger was working for the Huntingburg Chamber of Commerce back in the 1960s. She recalls how creosote-coated utility poles lined 4th Street — most with weather-worn, long-expired circus flyers stapled to them.

No one alive at the time could remember the business for which one particularly ugly and decaying sign still hung at the entrance.

Cool Beans building - then
Cool Beans building – then
Cool Beans building - now
Cool Beans building – now

Harvest gold or pale green siding covered some of the structures, hiding intricate molding and other features that had made them so charming when they were built.

A 1957 graduate of Huntingburg High School, Judy was a young wife and mother of two when she veered down a path that led to a degree in landscape architecture from Purdue University.

“It only took me 30 years,” she teases about her 1987 degree.

But even sans a degree she made a huge difference.

It all started, she explains today, when two of the community’s patriarchs, Bob and Phyllis Menke, saw a lecture by a HUD architect in Chicago. Since Judy was working for the Chamber, they suggested she contact him for some suggestions to improve Huntingburg.

The gentleman had been reclassified within HUD, but through her determination Judy was able to get him reclassified and bring him to town.

He came and made some suggestions. The suggestions made two business owners furious. Homer Sylvester and Louise Greener were happy with their small city just as it was — ugly utility poles and all.

Homer was so irate he wrote a letter to the editor of the Huntingburg Independent chastising Olinger for her meddling.

Louise called Judy an unprintable name and told her to mind her own business.

Disinger Kruger building - now
Disinger Kruger building – now
Disinger Kruger building - then
Disinger Kruger building – then

She was sobbing at her chamber desk, newspaper in hand, when the phone rang.

It was Rich Welp who said the silos at the Co-op were in deplorable shape and would Judy come up with a color scheme to repaint them?

Thus, a new career was born. Judy started by convincing building owners that a little paint would go a long way. She would come up with a color scheme and then borrow the city’s bucket truck with the permission of then-mayor Dale Helmerich so she could reach up into the cornices and eaves.

“I just kind of forced myself on people,” Judy explains. “When Homer wrote that letter I determined, we’re going to do this come hell or high water. It just grew, kind of like a fungus. I did this for a lot of years. I knew if a property changed hands and I’d call and offer to get a color scheme together.”

Most wise people took Olinger up on her offer.

And why wouldn’t they? All they had to pay for was materials and possibly a carpenter if one was needed.

Judy continued on this path for many years while her children were growing.

But, she knew she wanted more.

The same day her daughter graduated from Purdue, Judy became a student.

She had taken college courses before, at Vincennes University and Indiana State, but this would be different. Judy would study landscape architecture.

“Landscape architects don’t just plant — that is only the finishing touches,” she explains. “They do city planning, design, you name it.”

Class study included engineering, architecture, horticulture and all sorts of related design. “Everything you see is landscape,” Judy says. “Sidewalks, trees, lighting.”

Overtime building - then
Overtime building – then
Overtime building - now
Overtime building – now

She was the first Purdue student to intern at Colonial Williamsburg — a great honor and pure joy.

She will always remember the challenge noted architect Walter Netsch gave her graduating class: “We’ve had architects and engineers who designed America on the grid system the first time around. What are you landscape architects going to do now that it’s time for America to be redesigned?”

With enthusiasm, she headed back to Huntingburg, ready to get started.

On Monday morning at 7 a.m. her phone rang. Mayor Helmerich was on the other end. He said the gas department had purchased all sorts of flowers. “Can you figure out where to plant them?”

The day was hotter than Hades when Judy found herself spading up small openings in the soil for each plant.

“Where did I go wrong?” she said to herself.

But this did prove to be the beginning in another chapter of her life.

Windowbox building - then
Windowbox building – then

She has won numerous awards and given a plethora of presentations, added to her curriculum vitae with two summer sessions in Colorado Springs, Colorado focused on National Parks Planning and Risk Management — and she has garnered a world of experience with countless projects far beyond Huntingburg city limits. She has given educational tours of the historic district to students at all grade levels. And, she has been responsible for at least eight National Register projects, including the Salem United Church of Christ complex (where she serves as choir director), the Killion House and in progress, the Huntingburg Public Library and St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

In 1996, Paramount Studios conducted a search through many small towns across the Midwest looking for a location to film a $50 million movie eventually called “The Flood”. The two finalists were Cannelton, Indiana and Huntingburg, both of which owe their revitalization to Judy Olinger.

When she started her crusade, downtown Huntingburg looked pretty grim, with empty storefronts and a shabby facade that didn’t even border on chic. Today, owners of the numerous antique shops, boutiques, restaurants and specialty shops have her to thank for the charm and vitality of this small city.

On this day she has been weeding beds she previously designed to mirror the stained glass windows in Salem Church. Hard work has never been an issue for this vital and forceful women.

Still, the question may be asked, “Why?”

“I just wanted to make a difference in how Huntingburg looked. [At the time she started] it looked dreadful.”

Mission accomplished.


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