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Mural of memories brings city back

Robert Fettinger adds defining brush strokes to a mural of downtown Huntington he is painting at the Huntington County Historical Museum. Photo by Cindy Klepper.
Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Robert Fettinger's family seems to have a history of coming home.

His parents, who were living elsewhere when he was born, came to Huntington when he was just 2 years old.

That was a homecoming for his mom, whose family was from the Lancaster and Huntington areas.

When Fettinger himself came home, it was after stints in Arizona and Mexico, where he met and married his wife.
The city he came home to was a place so familiar to him that, even at age 77, he can reproduce the exact shades of the bricks that made up the facades of its downtown buildings.

Those colors and buildings are now flowing through Fettinger's fingertips and paintbrushes into a mural that will bring many other long-time Huntington residents back home - and introduce many newer residents to a city they've never known.

The mural graces part of one wall in a recent addition to the Huntington County Historical Museum.

"I've been working about four hours every other day for three months," Fettinger says as he brushes green paint into the shape of an awning. "I don't know how much more I have to go ... I've got to get it done in the next month or two."

The historical museum mural is not the first painting of its type the retired electronics designer has been called on to do. He's painted murals at both American Legion posts in Huntington, the Veterans of Foreign Wars post and the Historic Forks of the Wabash - all historic in nature. More of his work, also in a historical vein, hangs in the Huntington City-Township Public Library.

"I've painted all my life," he says, "ever since I was a little kid."

It's a talent he says he inherited from both his mother and his father, a pair of antiques dealers with artistic eyes.
And Fettinger did go to art school for a while, in Fort Wayne, but then he got busy.

With a family that would eventually include five children, he needed a job. And with a high school drafting class under his belt, he got a job at ITT, where he drew technical illustrations until the plant closed down.

His drafting experience got him a job at Wabash Magnetics in Huntington, where he retired 13 years ago as chief designer.

Fettinger's artistic talent, though, wasn't hidden away while he was at Wabash Magnetics. As staff members retired, he was called on to recreate each retiree's history at the plant - the good, the bad and the funny - sketches Fettinger says people still have hanging in their dens.

The mural at the historical museum is a recreation of Huntington's history, an amalgamation of downtown sights from the mid-1950s back to the turn of the century, Fettinger says.

Some of it, Fettinger says, he's pulled from memory. He's also using old photos as well as current photos that he took in preparation for the project.

The current photos, he says, will be given to the museum for archiving, to eventually become the new "old photos" of Huntington.

"So many things have changed and been painted over," Fettinger says as he compares the historic and current photos.

Many of the architectural details seen in his mural have also been lost to time.

"A lot of things like that, they're crumbling," Fettinger says. "They get dangerous, and they have to come down."

A representation of a friend's 1950s Ford is front and center, and a Cord is off to the side.

"The Schacht family had two Cords when I was a kid," he says. "I just loved that car. It's still my favorite car."

There's a non-motorized vehicle in the mural, too - a homemade push car.

"I had one, so did all my buddies," Fettinger says.

Fettinger grew up not far from downtown - first on Etna Avenue, later moving to College Avenue near the former Huntington High/Crest-view building.

"And kids on their bikes, we would go everywhere," he says.

Downtown, they regularly tormented Vern Keller, who sat on the sidewalks - pretending to be blind, Fettinger says - selling pencils. Keller and his cup of pencils are represented in Fettinger's mural.

Keller's form is one of many figures Fettinger has painted at home and then attached to the mural at the museum.

"That's kind of Mom," he says, holding a woman's figure in his hand.

Indicating a man in a policeman's coat, Fettinger says, "That's my great-grandfather, Jefferson Boyd."

Boyd was a Huntington policeman, and Fettinger is now the keeper of his badge and whistle. Boyd also fought in the final battle of the Civil War - a battle that happened after the war had ended, but before word had filtered down to Texas - and Fettinger also has mementoes of Boyd's service there.

While Fettinger's most public works of art are the historical murals, that's not the only style he works in.

"You name it, I've done it," he says.

A daughter and a son live in San Diego, CA, and Fettinger says he paints seascapes while he's there.

"I love to paint the sea," he says. "Except my daughter always ends up with my paintings."