Military historian and arms collector Fred Ropkey died this past week. He opted out of medical treatments that might have prolonged his life for a few months. After 84 years, he was not surrendering. He had simply decided to face this final challenge unarmed.
Fred was no fan of war. Few people are. Yet he knew that every tank, aircraft and piece of artillery he recovered was not only a work of exquisite design, but combined they represented the hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives that had been lost — or saved.
His passion, which was almost an obsession, got its roots early. At age 8, his parents gave him a World War I sword and a Civil War pistol belonging to his great-grandfather. At 16, he bought an armored World War II scout car and drove it to school. He stood up in the auditorium at Pike High School the day after Pearl Harbor and “reported” the Japanese attack to his fellow students. He tried to enlist in the Marines, but he was too young. He would later serve during the Korean conflict as a battalion commander.
Fred’s collection of arms grew over the years, and he stowed his thousands of acquisitions on the sprawling 100 acres of family land (dating back to the Great Depression) on the northwest side of Indianapolis. At the time, says his longtime mechanic Skip Warvel, the idea was to simply find a place to restore those treasures. But it was really more a warehouse than a showcase. So in 2005, Fred moved everything to Crawfordsville, signaling a new vision and purpose.
“Build it and they will come,” his wife, Lani, recalls him saying. Then he added: “Who would think that a little pole barn on a 50-acre cornfield in Crawfordsville could change so many lives?” It was no longer simply a standing building; it was a building that stood for something. He called it the Ropkey Armor Museum.