On the day that qualified Brad Cox as an “idiot” in a town with a tradition of celebrating them, he quickly changed the oil in his wife’s cherry red 2007 Pontiac Vibe, like he’d done some 60 times before, and watched her drive away to work.
Within miles, the car was spitting out thick black smoke and “bucking like a horse” on a back road in hilly southern Indiana. His manliness at stake, Cox began inspecting.
“I’m not a mechanic by any means,” Cox said. “But I can change my own damn oil.”
Without an obvious diagnosis, the 47-year-old did what any logical husband would do. He blamed his wife, Stephanie, who had taken a route to work that traversed a creek and, in Cox’s mind, clearly cracked the engine.
It was the town mechanic a day later who broke the idiot-worthy news.
Instead of draining the motor oil, Cox had accidentally emptied the transmission fluid, and, as a result, poured the fresh motor oil on top of the old motor oil and sent his wife off to work with a bone dry transmission.
The gasket had blown, and it was Cox’s fault.
So Stephanie did what any logical wife would do — she reveled, then nominated him for Village Idiot.
Last week, Cox won, becoming the 19th person to hold the title in a tiny, unincorporated town called Story, Ind., located deep in the foothills of Brown County just one hour south of Indianapolis. It was founded in 1851 by George Story, who was granted the land by President Millard Fillmore.
Story has no mayor, no government and isn’t really much of a town at all.
The most official title held by anyone there is Village Idiot.
And even though the official population of Story hovers somewhere around three humans, three dogs and one legendary ghost, no single person has reigned as top dunce more than once.
“You (don’t) run out of them,” Cox said. “There’s a pretty good crowd over there.”
Over there is the Story Inn, a rustic bed-and-breakfast that once served as Story’s General Store and is now solely responsible for putting the town on the map at all. It features TV-free rooms, a fine-dining restaurant and the Story Still Tavern, the home for all official Village Idiot business.
A bar stool there is where the town’s self-deprecating tradition was born.
Ricky Sawyers, a Story Inn employee, bought a brand new truck from a local dealership and rolled it on his way home. Ricky survived, but the truck did not. On April 1, 1999, he was crowned the first Village Idiot.
“People have been competing to outdo Ricky ever since,” Story Inn co-owned Rick Hofstetter told The Washington Post.
Even Hofstetter once earned the title, which he proudly proclaims in his email signature (Village Idiot ’06), for asking a bar patron who had ordered a gin and tonic how to make a gin and tonic.
But a handful of Hofstetter’s fellow idiots far outdid him.
There is his favorite, Dani Ham, a tavern bartender who, Hofstetter said, “set her own hair on fire while simultaneously smoking, driving to work and applying hair spray to tame her coiffure.” A musician once hit a cow on his way to perform at the Inn. While learning to bow hunt, a Story employee fell his own Chevy Cavalier.
There was the tavern regular who ran over her own foot with her own truck and a Story patron who took the blame for her Great Dane’s flatulence so her husband wouldn’t cast the dog outside.
One year, a newly married couple was named joint idiots after they stepped outside their cottage to cool off after a dip in the hot tub. “When they discovered that the door had locked behind them,” Hofstetter said, “she sent her husband to the front desk to get a new key, at the peak of the dinner rush, clad only in a bath towel.”
“It’s a very small town,” one idiot alumnus said during a TV interview in 2015. “It’s hard to hide stupidity.”
Throughout the year, bartenders at the tavern collect nominations on little pieces of paper that they store in a glass jar. In January, ballots are dispersed to patrons, Hofstetter said, and “in true Chicago fashion, customers can vote early, and often.”
The tavern regulars tally the ballots and discuss, then elect an idiot by consensus.
On April 1 of each year, a new winner is announced.
“I love Story,” Cox said. “You just can’t make stuff up like that.”
In his first week as Village Idiot, Cox has already become Facebook famous in his northern Indiana hometown and called out by a woman three people behind him in line at the Dollar Store.
“Hey!” she said. “That’s the Village Idiot!”
In the Facebook post Hofstetter wrote announcing Cox as the winner, he explained that the father of three is a talented local artist who runs a studio in a renovated mill with his wife. He welds scrap metal and turns old plows and tractor seats into the bar stools that line the Story Still.
“Brad is a man of many skills,” Hofstetter wrote, “but basic automobile maintenance is not one of them.”
For his efforts, Cox won a $100 bar tab to the tavern. His bill to put another engine in the Pontiac Vibe was $1,900.
“So,” Cox said, “I only need 18 more Village Idiot awards to break even.”
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