Ben Sprunger was another guy in my high school graduating class. Back then his nickname was “Sponge” and he was the biggest lineman on the football team. Ben’s greatest earthly love is the town of Berne. After high school he went to college and didn’t hesitate to move back. He actually did my job for a while, selling cars. Now he’s selling insurance at Mennonite Mutual Aid. I interviewed him on March 9, 2006.

Alright, was there ever a point where you didn’t want to be identified as a Berneite?

No. Nope. Never.

Didn’t you ever go through a stage of rebellion?

Uh, against the town? No. Against the ideals of Berne? I guess sometimes. I don’t like the whole closed-mindedness of Berne and the only reason why that is, is because I was able to go to college. I went to a Christian school, you went to a Christen school. You see everything you see at a state school. You might be sheltered a little bit on the kind of courses you take but outside the classroom…I played on the football team! That’s like going to strip bars and stuff. I never did go to a strip bar but gosh, it wasn’t a very Christian football team. There are parts of Berne I don’t like and one of those would be the idea that Berne is closed-minded…but all small towns have that. Everyone talks about everybody, everybody knows everybody and if you’re not one of those old names… You know, I think that’s bulls**t. You can put that down. Sponge says bulls**t. Now I will agree that people that run the town are of the old names. But that doesn’t mean that John Smith can’t come in here and make a name for himself. I could be “Jones” coming in here, or “Kowalsik”, a polish name… so what? Trust is not found in a name, it’s found in what you do.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle for Berne?

I think the biggest obstacle for Berne is finding its way in an economy that’s run by cities and suburbs. What’s Berne to do? Do we quit and just let the downtown go to shambles or do we increase the vitality of the economy? I think it’s the economy, keeping jobs here.

How can that happen?

I believe the CDC has a good idea when it comes to bringing people to Berne.

What’s the CDC?

Community Development Corporation. That’s the one building the clock tower. Is the clock tower going to bring in millions of dollars? I don’t know. Probably not. Is it going to bring jobs to Berne? Maybe. But it is definitely going to help Berne define who it is. It’s a Swiss community. And a town has to have a brand. If you look at all the surrounding communities, they’re going to shambles. What does Geneva have? They have the Limberlost. At least they’re capitalizing on it. We have our Swiss culture, our Swiss heritage. We have to have a way to bring people to Berne.

But don’t you think that branding Berne as a Swiss town comes into conflict with what you had earlier said about other people coming into Berne? And it not mattering who you are or what your last name is? Don’t you see any tension there?

Not necessarily. And I’m saying this as one of the “haves” not one of the “have-nots.” I have the name, the lineage, the ancestry. My take on it is that people don’t have to come to Berne, they choose to come to Berne. Great. I’ll accept them. My hope is that they’re concerned about the town they live in, they want a better place to live, and they want to be active in the community. That’s the ideal kind of person every community needs. People can embrace the Swiss heratige. You don’t have to be born Swiss or have Swiss blood in you to embrace that. Look at Geneva, Monroe, Bluffton, Decatur. Those towns, other than Geneva, don’t have anything really. Ossian: What are they? Berne: the land of the Swiss. That’s where the Swiss settled. So let’s encourage it…I could move anywhere but I’ve got to get involved with the community, with the church, the YMCA. Get involved.

So, what you’re saying is that you could live anywhere. But because you have roots here: Why not here?

Yeah. Now granted, me starting my business, this is the best way to do it. As I’m building my business, it doesn’t hurt to have the name Sprunger. It doesn’t hurt to have a mom and dad who are both Swiss, or have relatives who were the founders of Berne, or be on the Chamber of Commerce, or being on the CDC, or to coach South Adams Football. I’ll tell you what, the Chamber, the CDC, and the coaching don’t require me being Swiss. It means nothing. I could do all those without it. And if people aren’t willing to accept you, shame on them.

In high school I remember people always saying, “I can’t wait to get out of here.” How did you react to that and how do you react to it now?

In high school, I was looking forward to college and wanted to leave just to see what was out there. Now, I kind of frown on that. The reason being is that I see an intrinsic value of what a small town offers. Because we both know that the majority of kids our age, who went to college, haven’t moved back. Most live in large cities or the suburbs. Now why? The jobs are there but at the same time I think people focus so much on convenience and ease of life rather than really what is important in life. And that’s: Family, friends, and quality of life. And you might find that in a big city but convenience gets in the way of that. There’s a lot of things to do in the city. Moving to a small town makes you limited. But there’s something about one town united in the cause to be a community. Like going to a South Adams basketball game, everybody’s there, I can talk to them.

Where do you see yourself 50 or 60 years from now?

Swiss Village. Ha-Ha. If I’m alive then, I am a hefty fella, I see myself in Berne, and I’d like to do what Gaylord Stucky does.

What does he do?

He’s basically Berne’s ambassador. He greets people to Berne. I think that would be the coolest job in the world. Because I have a pride for this community and I have a love for it. Nothing would please more than to promote Berne. I just realize how lucky I have it in a small town like this. I just think there’s something neat about this town. There’s something special here.

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