Warren resident Couch loves education and a good challenge

Bill Couch, of Warren, plays the organ in his office. It’s one of his hobbies in a busy life that’s seen him serve as a school superintendent, the CEO of a company and as a manager for Habitat for Humanity.
Bill Couch, of Warren, plays the organ in his office. It’s one of his hobbies in a busy life that’s seen him serve as a school superintendent, the CEO of a company and as a manager for Habitat for Humanity. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published Feb. 18, 2013.

At 81, Warren resident Bill Couch is learning how to play the ocarina, a type of flute.

Six years ago, he started woodworking for the first time in his life, producing everything from bookshelves to cabinets, as well as restoring antique pieces.

It's because he's interested in knowledge, he says. And also because he likes a challenge.

Couch's pursuit of those two things has spanned his entire life, starting when he was a teacher and later a superintendent, to when he became the CEO of a company and then a manager for Habitat for Humanity.

Born on a farm in Huntington County, Couch says his family's ties to Warren go back almost 150 years.

"My father and all of his family were born here and my grandma, this is hard to believe, but this is the real truth, right after the Civil War they were in eastern Ohio. They walked from eastern Ohio to right outside of Warren here," Couch says.

Given his love for knowledge, Couch became a teacher in 1957. Teaching U.S. history, government and economics, Couch worked in both high schools and universities.

"I started teaching because I loved it," Couch says. "I wanted to teach kids. I wanted to communicate with kids and reason with them. Not argue with them, but cause them to discuss and cause them to be open-minded about things."

In time, Couch branched into the administrative side of public education, ultimately becoming the superintendent of schools in Shelbyville.

"And you think that's an advancement," he says. "But the most fun I ever had was when I was with the kids."

"Right now," Couch continues, "(being) an administrator in public education has more to do with paperwork, all of that kind of thing, than it has to do with educating kids."

After 27 years in public education, Couch retired in 1984, disillusioned by what he calls the politicization of the education process.

"It became political football," Couch says. "Rather than solving problems, you cause problems, and I couldn't see any future in that, and I just retired from education."

As Couch's career in public education ended, he found a different application for the skills he had developed as a superintendent, and it led to a new challenge elsewhere. CountryMark, an agricultural cooperative firm based in Indianapolis, was looking for leadership and came calling.

"This company came to me and said, ‘Bill, you can manage multimillion-dollar budgets for schools. We have a young man coming from Harvard, but it's going to take him five years to get here. Would you take (this job) for those five years?'"

"So, I did," Couch says. "Beautiful job. Wonderful job. Everybody was on an incentive. No time cards. The more they made, the more I made, the more the co-op made."

Couch served as CountryMark's CEO and was with the company from 1984 to 1994.

After a decade in the agriculture business, Couch retired again and he and his wife, Winifred, started visiting Sebring, FL. But Couch wasn't looking for rest and relaxation in the Sunshine State; he was looking for a new challenge.

"When we got down there, I'm always looking for something to do," Couch says. "So, I met a guy and he said, ‘Do you know anything about construction?' I said, ‘Very little, other than I can draw blueprints and do things like that.' And he said, ‘Why don't you come out?'"

With that, Couch became a manager for Habitat for Humanity and he got the chance to be a teacher again, working with young volunteers on projects.

"I started getting young college kids during spring vacations and they'd come from New York and Boston and all over the country, boys and girls, and they'd never done anything like that in their lives," Couch says.

Under his direction, Couch and his volunteers built five to six houses every winter. He enjoyed working for Habitat so much that when he and his wife moved to Brownsville, TX, they got affiliated with the Habitat branch there, starting a Habitat retail store, as they had in Sebring, and they assisted Spanish-speaking clients as they learned the ins and the outs of homeownership.

Couch and wife returned to Indiana in 2002 after working for Habitat for nine years. For a time, they lived in Delaware County, tending to farmland they owned there, before moving back to Warren.

"My wife had been a nurse (at Heritage Pointe in Warren) in the 1970s and '80s and she's always really wanted to come back here because she liked the people so well," Couch says. "And so that's why we're here."

Couch's return to Warren coincided with his picking up woodworking as a serious hobby.

"We came here six years ago, and as a superintendent of schools I had bought thousands of dollars worth of woodworking tools, equipment, saws, mills, whatever, and I've always had a yearning to do that," Couch says.

Woodworking was another challenge for him and he approached it with vigor, consuming many books and magazines on the topic, educating himself to a point where he could build and repair almost anything.

Today, Couch enjoys reading and indulging his inner musician, playing the organ in office, and learning other instruments, like the ocarina.

While Couch's professions and interests over the years have changed, one thing hasn't.

"I'm interested by knowledge," he says.

"I've had a blessed life. I've had opportunities that lots of people never got and I really appreciate it and am thankful for it."