Local High School's Million Dollar Art Collection

By Eric Olson

January 2, 2013 Updated Jan 2, 2013 at 12:56 PM EDT

PERU, Indiana--It’s stunning, it’s colorful, and it’s one of the strangest art world stories Fort Wayne Art Museum director Charles Sheppard has ever heard.

“Some of the pieces in this collection are truly famous pieces by artists of that time,” Sheppard says, “some of the best that they’ve done.”

It’s a multimillion dollar collection of fine art, owned entirely by Peru High School in Peru Indiana. This is the John Whittenberger collection of G. David Thompson at Peru High School, or a small portion of it. And its story begins with this man, multimillionaire industrialist G. David Thompson, born and raised in Peru Indiana…a poor student and troublemaker at Peru High School until the art teacher, John Whittenberger, introduced him to art and turned his life around.

“This is where he got ‘A’s, this is where he put the extra time in and he got this attention from this single individual ‘Well I’m gonna send something back for the gipper, so to speak.”

Thompson went on to get rich in the steel business and become a world class art collector and what he began sending back to his old art teacher were priceless paintings, dozens of them over the years. This exhibit at the Fort Wayne Art Museum is just a sampling..a portrait of Pablo Picasso by Salvador Dali…this beautiful seascape by William Merrit Chase…this stunning piece by Alasandro Pooray..

“This is what happens, we wait for buses we wait for trains, someone reads the paper,” says Sheppard about the painting. “This would be just normal life in America captured at that moment, like a snapshot might capture someone.”

It’s a gorgeous exhibit enhanced by a truly American story of success, of generosity, and of a teacher who reached out to a troubled kid, and made a difference. This is Eric Olson reporting.

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