Longtime New Pal, high school sports supporter Van Bush passes away

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NEW PALESTINE — He was more than a superfan.

With his curly hair, popular personality, and reserved seats at sporting events and the local pub, Van Bush was a New Palestine icon.

The Dragons, Hancock County and Indiana high school sports have lost one of their biggest supporters and friends.

The “unofficial” mayor of New Palestine and lifelong resident of the southern Hancock County town, Bush passed away on June 14. He was 80.

Bush graduated from NPHS in 1959. He spent five years in the Air Force before returning back to the town that would remain his home.

Jim Leisure played high school sports at New Palestine in the early 80s and later coached football both at New Pal and Mt. Vernon. Over the years, he and Bush became close friends.

“Everyone has a passion,” Leisure said. “For some it’s fishing or hunting, for Van it was his love of high school sports.”

For close to 60 years, Bush went to almost all New Palestine games for baseball, football, boys and girls basketball, and softball. He traveled, too, which gave him the chance to do another one of his favorite things, eat at the local greasy-spoon restaurant.

“It wasn’t just home games. He would ask, ‘Do you want to go to Bedford? Do you want to go to Columbus?’” Leisure said. “Or, he’d want to go watch Luke Brown play (basketball) at Blackford.”

Mike Curtis was another close friend, travel partner and driver on a lot of those trips.

“I think he was just interested in youth sports all together,” Curtis said. “We’d have conversation on our road trips and he’d say, ‘Mike, did you realize the eighth-grade team has a kid that is 6-5? Or, hey, did you know there was a seventh-grade pitcher on the softball team, really going to be something at the next level.’”

“He had his finger on the pulse of all the sports in our community at all levels. He was generally interested in all the youth programs.”

And, when the Dragons weren’t playing or were eliminated from the postseason, Bush would often follow the next closest team, whether it be Mt. Vernon, Greenfield-Central or Eastern Hancock.

He also liked traveling to see the state’s top basketball players and some of Indiana’s historic gymnasiums.

In the last few years, Curtis and Bush had quite a number of jaunts across the state.

They drove to Seymour to watch New Albany’s Romeo Langford, who later played at Indiana University and is now with the Boston Celtics. They traveled north to Elkhart to watch a regional tournament that included Blackford’s Brown, who finished his career with over 3,000 points, ranking fourth on the state’s all-time scoring list.

In between sessions of the tournament, Bush asked Curtis if he wanted to see one of the state’s older gyms. A couple of phone calls and a 20-minute drive later, they were in Jimtown taking tours of the school’s old gymnasium.

Last winter, Curtis said Bush was adamant about going to Marion to watch former New Palestine girls basketball standout Jordan Reid, who was playing basketball at Indiana Wesleyan University. That day IWU was playing Saint Francis, which had former Mt. Vernon star Lexi Shelton, daughter of Mt. Vernon’s girls head coach Julie Shelton.

It was an extension of the New Palestine-Mt. Vernon rivalry, one Bush often had fun trading friendly barbs with coach Shelton.

“I have had all kinds of conversations with him (over the years) and the teasing back and forth with New Pal and Mt. Vernon,” coach Shelton recalled of her relationship with Bush. “He was always so good to Lexi and he sat with (my husband Derek and I) during her and Jordan’s game this year. For seven innings (at the New Pal-Mt. Vernon softball game last month) we sat on the front row and talked the entire game. He seemed to be the same ol’ Van, doing well.”

“What an awesome guy. He made the New Pal-Mt. Vernon rivalry extremely fun for me, too.”

Bush’s daugther, Krystal Emmert-Bush said she has a lot of great memories of her dad that often centered around sports.

“One of the coolest memories I had, we went to Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind.,” she recalled. “There’s a gym out there that was one of the last that still had wood backboards and he told me all about it. He loved the history aspect of Indiana basketball.”

Krystal said her father had kept a book about the history of the state’s high school gyms, an autographed copy of Indiana high school basketball legend Damon Bailey’s book, along with the Sports Illustrated issues that featured Larry Bird, when he was at Indiana State University, and Isiah Thomas when he played for Indiana University.

Both Curtis and Leisure said whenever they went to games on the road, the people in those towns knew Bush, too, but no one knew him quite like the people in New Palestine, the people that loved him, and he loved, the most.

“He wasn’t obsessed. He was smitten,” Leisure said. “He loved his family. He loved his town and he loved New Palestine athletics.”

If Bush wasn’t at a ballgame — or often after ballgames — it was common to see him hanging out with friends at New Palestine’s Round the Corner Pub.

“He didn’t know a stranger,” Krystal said. “Whenever I’d be with dad, he and his friends would be poking fun at each other. Now (in the last week) to hear what their friendships meant to each other, it’s overwhelming. He was a good guy.”

“I went to pick up his mail, and there was a graduation party invitation. It broke my heart that he wouldn’t get to go. “When I would talk to him around graduation season he would always talk about all the graduation parties he went to, what sports they played, how he knew their parents, where they were going to school.”

“He would have gone (to that party). I saw on the graduation card there was a kid throwing a baseball. I thought, ‘Dad watched him play.’”

Along with following teams, he was big contributor in community sports. He helped establish the New Palestine youth baseball and softball leagues. He spent a number of years umpiring youth league and high school games and did some baseball coaching, too.

The family is in the works to create a sports scholarship for New Palestine High School athletes in Bush’s name.

“His presence and support were two of his biggest attributes,” New Palestine athletic director Al Cooper said. “A lot of people go to games, but he went to almost all of them. The reason I know that is I’m at most of them. I’d always drive by talk to Van for a little bit. He was a good friend and a good family friend of mine and my parents. It’s hard to put into words his involvement and his love and support of New Palestine athletics.”

With his popularity across the county and state, visitation and a Celebration of Life will take place at the New Palestine High School gymnasium on Monday, June 27. Visitation is from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. The celebration will begin at 2 p.m., with burial, with full military honors presented by the United States Air Force, at New Palestine Cemetery to follow.

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