So I just have a few questions… How long have you been mayor?
I was elected in 2003. I took office January 1st at 12:00 noon in 2004. Two years and five months.
What is the process that it entails? I mean, what is the process that you go about to get elected?
There are two processes. The first process is if you want to become a candidate for a city election you would file your candidacy by February 15th of the year of the election. Then you enter the primary. If you looked at the completed primary elections this year for the county, there were many offices that were unopposed. At that point you would also file for a party. Then the general election is in November. The second process is the one I became involved in. If there is no candidate, you have until June 20th to file your candidacy. So, there was no candidate running for the Democrat Party in 2003. So some people talked to me from the Party and asked me if I would run. I was not excited at that point in running for mayor but they kept after me and I started to think what I could do for the city. I was in education and an administrator so I had background. And I looked at the mayor’s office and I thought that it was an administrator’s job, basically. I decided that I had experience and the knowledge and that’s the way I chose. So I started campaigning. I walked in the Swiss Days parade. Put up signs.
So what all do you do when you campaign?
What you do is, number one, you become very visible attending different functions. I attended the 4-H Fair, Swiss Days; I set up a booth and walked in the parade. Shaking hands, getting your name out. After Swiss Days it was a matter of being downtown, hearing people, talking with people. Finding out what the concerns were. What do I have to face if I’m elected mayor. And you hear everything from problems with dogs and cats to problems with opossums. On lady called me and said an opossum was eating her cat food and wanted to know what I was going to do about that. From flood problems to who you will appoint as city attorney. You’ll get every question imaginable. My philosophy was that I wasn’t answering questions; I was listening. I was also trying to come up with a slogan that would set me apart from the other candidate. It was “Resolve Present Problems Prepare for the Future and Preserve the Past.” I got that out in the paper. I made some signs, “Minch for Mayor.” I put them all over town and I’d move them from time to time because I didn’t have a large amount of money. I didn’t want to go to the Democrat Party to get money. I didn’t want to owe anybody if I became mayor. I did get some money from the Democrat Party because they decided to give each candidate they sponsored some. And I didn’t go to any organizations and get money. I kept it very simple. Plain. After the 15th of October I started the real campaign. I knocked on every door in Berne.
Every door. And I shook their hand and gave them a grocery pad that said “Minch for Mayor.”
That’s got to be 1,000 - 2,000 homes?
And I had a plan for doing it. One thing you learn from being an administrator is how to organize. Now John, you may want to use this when you’re running.
Well, you don’t go into one district and knock on five homes and then go into another district and knock on five more. Because those people are going to talk in that district and if you go to five homes, they’re going to go over to the back fence and talk to their neighbors and ask, “Why didn’t he stop here?” And if you wait a week, it’s too long. So when I covered an area, it took me two, and at the most, three days. And on election you should simply be yourself. I was always myself. My personality did not change and it hasn’t since I’ve been mayor. So, you have a headquarters, which the Democrat Party set up. I was behind by a couple of votes when the first precinct came in and thought I didn’t need to worry about this one. But as the others came in, I kept getting more and more and I won by nine votes. And the mayor came and congratulated me and said there would be no recount. Well, that didn’t happen. When it came up to recount time there was a change and I think it probably came from the party. So my son and daughter-in-law are both attorneys so I turned it over to them. I asked my son what I should do and he said, “Act mayoral because you’re the elected mayor at this point.” So the recount took until December the 20th and I actually got one more vote. And it didn’t give me much time to prepare but I had been preparing before and talking with other mayors.
On a national level, the Republican and Democratic parties are pretty distinct. When it gets to the small, city level, what do those labels mean, if anything?
I think in small towns people would like to think that it’s so but your national carries over. In your small town policies it’s there. People say they don’t like that. I think it’s healthy. I think there should be some definite differences. Just an example, John: When you do a budget, the philosophy of one party might be more liberal or conservative on spending a certain amount of money on a certain aspect of the city. In our city the big issue was flooding and the infrastructure, which I campaigned a lot about. One thing that happened when I got into office was that I got a memo that said we would not be able to get a permit to build because we did not have the capacity in our waste water system to add more sewage. I was floored. And I went to IDEM, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, and they said we were the second worst city on their list. So I said, “What do we need to do?” And they said that for every gallon of storm water you take out of your system, we will give you so many gallons of sewage you can put back in. So they said it would be a 10 to 1 ratio. And I said we couldn’t do that if we wanted to keep development in the town. So I said, “If I’m a good boy, will you make it half of that?” So, we negotiated and they agreed. The biggest issue facing Berne is if we want to a couple small projects and still have the problem or attack it full force. The kind of person I am, I’m going to attack it head-on. It’s going to cost us money. Everything costs money, John. And after we get these done we will welcome developers.
So, growth in Berne over these past few years has been inhibited by this wastewater program?
Let me clarify that John. New growth.
Ok, new growth.
If you were in an area where there were already sewer lines you can hook in to those. Take for instance the new video store out on the highway. There was already a sewer line and they could hook in. The problem is when you want to come in and build something like 15 new homes. So you have to build a development and a sewer line to put those homes in. So, total development has not stopped. We actually had more building in 2004 than in 2002 or 2003. We had a plant that was going to expand. We negotiated with IDEM and we worked with them. The plant stayed in town and they have since then announced that they are going to add another 100 jobs.
What has been the biggest change that’s happened in Berne over the past 40 years?
John, I’ve been here 35 years. When I moved into town I was a young married person here to teach boy’s basketball at South Adams. At that time there was very, very little development. Home development. Many people were living in, what some people say, “old Berne.” Now, I don’t like that term. I call it Berne. We are all citizens of Berne but for some reason people say “old” or “new” Berne. It’s all Berne. With that being said, over the past 35 years there have been housing developments to the west of town and other areas. Those houses (in “old Berne”) that were sold and repurchased were not repurchased with the same pride that Berne had when I moved into town. Everybody kept their lawn mowed and you didn’t mow on Sunday. Killed dandelions. I had a neighbor that volunteered to mow the grassy area between my drive and his and he said he would mow that space so it would all be at the same height. That’s how particular it was. Today it’s not like that. I’m not saying there isn’t a lot of pride in Berne but I’m saying there isn’t the same Swiss pride. It’s not here as it once was when I moved here.
Now are you Swiss? Because it’s interesting to hear you drop the adjective of being Swiss.
No I’m not.
But there’s a certain quality associated with being Swiss?
Swiss, German. I’m German. I think there is. Work ethics. Self-sufficient. You work for what you get. I never saw students come in with a silver spoon in their mouth. They worked for it. Their parents believed in work. You saw very few silver spoons. When I went to coach in another community, I saw it there but not Berne. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t other nationalities that do that. I might go to a German settlement in Ohio. Like Celina, they have a lot of pride. I guess its community pride; I call it Swiss pride.
I’m not Swiss but I chose to live here because it was a great place to raise a family. Another thing that is changed is that homes didn’t sell for what they thought they would. So, entrepreneur’s bought a number of these homes and they became rentals. This creates problems. You have a different approach on financing things. I’ve had to search in numerous states just to find out who financed a home where the weeds were growing up and it was run down. The people moved and hung the bank with it.
What do you see as the biggest hope for Berne in the future? In terms of residential, in terms of business or just the town in general.
Because of the change in the economy one of the concerns I have with Berne and other small towns is the question: Why do their young people choose large cities? I have two children and both live in Indianapolis. That’s where their jobs are. There professions are in cities. What happens to a small town? You have to bring in unique businesses. Support businesses that have been here. Someone asked me, “If you were going to put something in Berne, what would you put in?” What you need to do is look at your population and what’s being built are senior citizen apartments. Retirement living. So if you want to put in a business, you better cater to that demographic. Like good restaurants. We go out to eat quite a bit because it’s just the two of us and we don’t feel like cooking. Also we need to maintain our good work ethic and focus on the things we can specialize in. Like our furniture makers. We need to look to things that can’t be imported and are unique.
When did you become a member of the Amish church?
Zach: 2002. But I attended the church for over two years before I joined.
And how did it come about that you attended an Amish church? One day you just thought you’d try it out?
Zach: No, see, I used to haul an Amish work crew for probably for 5 to 6 years and then another crew for probably two years before that so I’ve been around it for a good 7 to 8 years. It wasn’t like I didn’t know what it was about.
When you made that conscious decision to join, what was the biggest challenge for you?
Zach: The biggest challenge was the language, by far.
What is the language’s official name?
Maryann: It’s a mixture of Swiss, High German, and English. It’s its own dialect.
From a lifestyle standpoint was it much of a change or was it pretty easy?
Zach: Oh, well, a lot of people come up and say, “How could you quit driving?” And all of those things really were nothing. Probably the hardest thing for me to give up was the news. When I worked for the carpenter crew I got the USA Today every morning but now that I work in the cabinet shop I don’t get to keep up on the world events.
Was there anything religiously that was a hard transition?
Zach: I think a better question isn’t what was hard for me to give up but what I received by becoming a member and being accepted into the church. Before I was accepted, I kept thinking, “Man they should let me in, it’s been a year.” And at the time it was hard to accept but I’m glad [the bishop] did it the way he did and took enough time. I’ve got a wonderful bishop. I think a lot of him. The thing I really liked about the Amish was the forgiveness aspect of their faith. The way the Amish, when you do something wrong, you can have an ending to it. You can be forgiven and it’s over. Of all religions, I feel they have the best way of bringing closure to problems when something bothers them. Another thing I really enjoyed was that unlike many churches where you go and for an hour you’ll sit and listen to a minister criticize people of other faiths and other churches but in the Amish church you never hear that. The way they worship; that’s their business. It’s like when someone leaves the Amish, they do a tour to all these other churches and slam the Amish and that’s wrong. I don’t think God looks down and likes that. I don’t see how he can be pleased at any place of worship allowing or inviting someone to come in and criticize someone else’s faith. All churches at one time or other have had their own disagreements and discontent members that leave.
But at a certain point do you feel that you do have to draw a line?
Zach: Do we have the right to make that judgment? Or are we to respect beliefs and their right to have them? That’s why everybody came to this country.
Maryann: I think though that there is a point where you do have to draw the line.
So is Anabaptist, Mennonite, and Amish history talked about within the church or do you just mostly preach about what you believe?
Maryann: Well, we always remember what they did and what they lived through, so that we can live the way we do. I’ve known for as long as I can remember that our forefathers suffered for the faith.
Do you link that to the way you live now? Do you link their persecution with a your experience of being Amish?
Zach: [Being Amish] doesn’t make us any better than what you are. A lot of people think, “Oh, those Amish, they think they’re better Christians. “That’s not true. The rules we have keep us out of trouble. They help keep us from having problems.
Do you see yourself sharing in the Anabaptists’ persecution…maybe not through violence but through discrimination against being Amish?
Maryann: I would say that the way we live is a separation of the world. That’s why we do it; we’re called to not be of this world.
Zach: But there’s a fear that something like [persecution] might happen again. Or that we might get drafted into the military.
Do you see the way you live as a witness to other people?
Maryann: Yes. But more of just an example to others. With the religion we have you have to make sure you are a good example. It looks bad when somebody does something within the community that is obviously not right.
Zach: And you know, there’s good Amish and bad Amish. Just like your church. There’s good Mennonites and bad Mennonites. But we all use the same Bible.
So if you don’t mind me asking, Maryanne, did your relationship begin before or after Zach became Amish?
Maryann: It started before.
Zach: We had known each other for eight years.
Maryann: He had been a driver and he took us [her family] on a trip once. And we had always liked each other but he wasn’t Amish.
Zach: Before I ever approached her, I knew what I had to do. See, my parents were divorced and going through that, not having my family, there was no way I could take that away from someone else. And it wasn’t knowing what I had to do, it was knowing what I was going to do. I didn’t want to take my wife’s family away from her. Before I ever told her how I felt, my mind was made up.
Maryann: And he had thought about it for a year before.
Zach: Oh, for ages. I thought about it and prayed. And really when I had made my mind up that I really liked her, I didn’t see her for almost a year. Didn’t speak to her. I passed her on the road with her brothers but I didn’t speak to her.
Wasn’t that weird? Knowing that you were fairly intent on getting married?
Zach: Well, I didn’t even know if she would accept.
Maryann: We hadn’t talked about it.
Zach: In fact, I went with her older brother to their house for supper one time and I didn’t even talk to her.
Maryann: I thought he was stuck up as a matter of fact.
Zach: But her mom caught me looking at her.
Maryann: And then we took another trip with my brother, his wife, and some of my friends.
Zach: On the last day I just knew I had to say something. And we did do a few things. She worked at Swiss Village [a retirement community in Berne] and I’d go out there and have dinner with her. No dates. And I’d also came over to their house for dinner. And when we finally did come out with it, we talked to her brother first. And the first thing he said was, “Do mom and dad know?” And we said, “No, we thought we’d start where it was easy!” It was quite an experience.
P.S. Lately I've been pretty busy so now I'll be posting new interviews every other week.