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Ex-Gov. Whitcomb, lawyer, POW, adventurer, dies at 98

February 5, 2016

Former Indiana Gov. Edgar Whitcomb, who escaped from a Japanese prisoner camp by swimming overnight during World War II and then made an around-the-world solo sailing trip while in his 70s, has died at age 98.

The Republican small-town lawyer, who was quick to veto legislation even though the Legislature was controlled by fellow Republicans, died on Thursday, according to his daughter, Patricia Whitcomb. He began a years-long quest around the world in 1987, more than a decade after leaving office, that included seeing his sailboat sink off the coast of Egypt.

“Governor Ed Whitcomb was a great man whose life of courage, service and adventure inspired generations of Hoosiers and he will be deeply missed," Gov. Mike Pence said in a statement Thursday, adding that the former governor died at his home near the Ohio River community of Rome, Indiana.

Whitcomb was governor from 1969 to 1973, a tenure marked by ongoing disputes over spending and taxes. He vetoed scores of bills, most notably a plan backed by then-House Speaker Otis Bowen in 1971 to cut property taxes by increasing the state sales tax. Whitcomb had won the GOP nomination for governor at the party’s 1968 state convention over Bowen, and he took a strict stance against any tax increases.

Bowen went on to win election as governor in 1972 and push a similar property tax plan through the Legislature the next year. The changes were well-received by the public, and Bowen was wildly popular when he left office.

Whitcomb, though, didn't retreat from his position, saying his work to economize state government and block tax hikes had benefited residents.

“Surely the hundreds of millions of dollars which are in the hands of taxpayers as a result of your refusal to increase general taxes have contributed to this surge in personal income,” Whitcomb told legislators in his 1973 farewell address.

Whitcomb’s term as governor also saw the Legislature establish, over his veto, that most of the state would follow Eastern Standard Time year-round. That decision to not have time changes in 80 of the state's 92 counties kept Indiana out of sync with much of the country until legislators approved statewide daylight saving time in 2005.

He also helped ensure decades of Republican dominance of Indianapolis by signing into law the government unification of the city and its GOP-leaning suburban communities in Marion County.

Whitcomb was born in the southern Indiana town of Hayden and was a student at Indiana University before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1940, becoming a navigator for B-17 bombers.

He was stationed at a base in the Philippines when Japanese aircraft struck there hours after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. He was among several thousand troops captured and imprisoned on the small island of Corregidor, from which he and another American escaped by swimming overnight more than two miles to Bataan only to be recaptured days later. Whitcomb wrote about those experiences in a 1958 memoir, “Escape from Corregidor.”

He practiced law in the southern Indiana communities of North Vernon and Seymour while starting his political career. He won election in 1966 as Indiana secretary of state, which gave him a platform for his 1968 gubernatorial campaign.

Whitcomb and his wife, Patricia, divorced in 1987 after 36 years of marriage. That same year, he began his quest to sail solo around the world.

The journey started by crossing the Mediterranean from Israel to Gibraltar. He completed the trip in stages during the good sailing season — including 55 days from Costa Rica to Tahiti. His 30-foot sailboat sank in 1996, after striking a shallow coral reef off Egypt, after Whitcomb had passed the longitude of his starting point for his around-the-world trip.

“At first, in the Mediterranean I endured some storms that I didn't think I was going to survive,” Whitcomb said in a 1996 interview. “And after being through three or four or five of them, then you get the feeling, ‘Well, I got through the others. I'll get through this.’ Then I got so I didn't worry about them.”

In his 80s, he moved to an isolated cabin, with a battery as its only electrical source, on 140 acres of forest along the Ohio River.

He lived there for several years with Mary Evelyn Gayer before they married in 2013 — when he was 95 and she was 83. They met 12 years earlier while taking a computer class.

In a statement, Attorney General Greg Zoeller recalled a multi-day family fishing expedition on the Ohio River in 2012 joined by Whitcomb. “We learned firsthand that he was a most remarkable man who represented the very best of our Hoosier spirit, akin to the bold pioneers who founded Indiana 200 years ago,” Zoeller said in a statement.

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