James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916)
Of course, you can’t talk about distinguished citizens of Greenfield without mentioning our own Hoosier Poet, James Whitcomb Riley. He was born in Greenfield in 1849, and was a bestselling American author, writer and poet. He is well-known for his children’s poems, including two famous works called “Little Orphant Annie” and “The Raggedy Man.” His literary caricatures of Midwesterners were a major factor in the formation of our state’s cultural identity. Today, we still frequently celebrate Riley in Greenfield with events at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum and the annual Riley Festival to celebrate his birthdate each fall. One of the highlights of the festival is the Parade of Flowers, where elementary-aged students walk to Riley’s statue to place bouquets in his honor, a tradition that dates back to 1967.
Marcellus Neal (1868–1939)
Marcellus Neal was born in Tennessee, but his family later moved to Greenfield where he grew up, graduating from the local high school with distinction. His excellent academic career earned him a spot at Indiana University, where he became the first African-American graduate of the college in 1895. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics and served as an educator, traveling across the United States, Canada and Europe to teach math, science and share political editorials with African-American newspapers. In 1969, 30 years after Neal’s passing, the Black Culture Center on IU’s campus was renamed the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center in honor of Neal and Frances Marshall, the first African-American female student to graduate from the college in 1919.
John William Vawter (1871–1941)
John William Vawter, commonly known as “Will,” was a famous artist who grew up in Greenfield. Although he was born in Virginia, his family moved to Hancock County in 1877, where he developed into the artist he came to be. His first professional job as an artist was for the “Hancock Democrat” newspaper, and he later worked for the “Indianapolis Sentinel,” “Indianapolis News,” “The Cincinnati Gazette,” “Life Magazine” and several other publications. While living in Greenfield, Vawter formed a close relationship with another of our distinguished citizens, James Whitcomb Riley, eventually illustrating eleven volumes of his poems and modeling his illustrations on a number of local residents. He was also well-known for his landscape paintings and Impressionist style of art.
Jaycie Phelps (born 1979)
A more recent famous Greenfield citizen is Jaycie Phelps, a goal medal Olympian and gymnast. She lived in Greenfield until the age of 11 and returned after her retirement from gymnastics, now serving as the owner and head coach of the local Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center, established in 2010. Phelps was a member of the 1996 Olympic U.S. women’s gymnastics team, known as the Magnificent Seven. Their team was the first to win a gold medal for the United States in women’s team gymnastics, and Phelps competed in all four events with high scores and consistency. She was later inducted into both the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame. She has also been awarded Sagamore of the Wabash and has a road named after her on the east side of Greenfield.
Kyle Gibson (born 1987)
Another modern Greenfield athlete is Kyle Gibson, a professional Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher. He is currently pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies and has previously played for the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers. He grew up in Greenfield, playing for the Greenfield-Central High School Cougars for two years. In his senior year, he was named Hancock County Player of the Year, All-East Player of the Year and also made the Indiana All-Star Team. Instead of signing in the 2006 MLB draft, he chose to go to college, later participating in the 2009 draft and being officially called into the major leagues in June 2013. Most recently, he recorded his 1,000th career strikeout during his debut with the Philadelphia Phillies debut on August 1, 2021.
Photo Credit: Visit Indiana