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Frank O’Bannon: a brilliant public servant

Frank O’Bannon: a brilliant public servant
Frank O’Bannon: a brilliant public servant
For his first political campaign, a race for his father Robert's State Senate seat, O'Bannon was photographed along the Ohio River in 1970. (Photo by Randy West)

Gov. Frank O’Bannon, elected Nov. 5, 1996, and Nov. 7, 2000, performed with energy, vision, creativity and compassion.
O’Bannon, who died Sept. 13, was a tenacious consensus-builder who quietly pressed others to do the right thing for the people of Indiana. He was a good listener who sought the counsel of others, but never shied from making a decision. He firmly believed in open government and the freedom of the press.
His optimism and enthusiasm for all things Hoosier never wavered, even under the most trying circumstance of his tenure ‘ the national recession that has pummeled Indiana’s economy for three years. He devoutly believed that his native Indiana was a wonderful place to live, work and rear a family, and he regularly exhorted others to spread the word.
His greatest achievements are testament to those beliefs. O’Bannon, a Democrat, teamed with Rep. Suellen Reed, the superintendent of public instruction, to induce the strangest of political bedfellows to join them on the Education Roundtable, which then tackled the most intractable problems facing public schools. The result is that Indiana children are learning more and Hoosier schools are improving under some of the toughest academic standards in the country.
In 2002, O’Bannon employed his trademark quiet but persistent leadership to persuade lawmakers from both parties to restructure the state’s tax system, making it more conducive to job creation and to extend $1 billion in property tax relief to homeowners, mitigating the effects of a court-ordered reassessment that shifted a significant portion of the tax burden from businesses to homeowners.
Earlier this year, he built on the momentum created by tax restructuring and persuaded lawmakers to pass ‘Energize Indiana,’ the boldest economic development plan ever undertaken in Indiana. Energize Indiana offers an array of incentives, assistance and tax breaks to high-tech businesses, as well as skill assessments and job matching for workers.
In both the 2002 and 2003 legislative sessions, O’Bannon addressed a serious budget deficit but maintained that doing that, and nothing else, did not adequately serve the people of Indiana. And so, unlike any other governor in the nation, the unassuming Hoosier leader simultaneously addressed issues of the moment and those of the future ‘ and fundamentally changed the Indiana economy forever.
O’Bannon had just 15 months left in his second term, but he shunned the very notion of ‘lame duck’ and had already directed his staff to begin work on his next major project. He fervently wished to return to a subject particularly dear to him ‘ early childhood education. He hoped that, even with budgetary constraints, state government could play a larger role in encouraging new Hoosier parents to stimulate learning in their very young children.
O’Bannon’s love and concern for children were reflected in his two inaugurations, which made history for very different reasons.
After his 1996 election, he invited Indiana’s fourth-grade students ‘ who study Indiana history ‘ to witness his Jan. 13, 1997, inauguration, something no governor had ever done. Despite sub-zero temperatures that day, hundreds of Hoosier school children, for the first time ever, watched as their governor was sworn in at a ceremony on the west side of the Statehouse.
After his re-election, the governor repeated his invitation to a new crop of fourth graders. Recalling how daunting Indiana weather can be, organizers moved the inaugural festivities inside the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. More than 25,000 students and visitors from across Indiana watched as the first governor of the 21st century was sworn in Jan. 8, 2001, making it the largest gubernatorial inauguration crowd in Indiana history.
Hoosiers who had the privilege of personally meeting O’Bannon can attest that he was warm and friendly, especially when a young constituent sought to shake his hand or pose for a picture with him. That persona was not put on; he was equally kind to political allies and foes, to his staff and to members of the news media. He rarely lost his temper and often sought to be a conciliator.
It is said that eyes are the windows to one’s soul. That was certainly true with O’Bannon. When he was particularly delighted, his eyes positively twinkled. When he was learning about an issue, he watched the speaker with a thoughtful gaze, listening intently, taking in every detail. And in those rare moments of pique, his eyes flashed with fire.
O’Bannon unabashedly exhibited a whimsical side, delighting in shooting photographs with a credit card-sized digital camera at some news events.
In fact, the governor was a gadget and computer aficionado. He had a computer on his desk and at home, and used the Internet and e-mail long before it became routine. He also was an avid reader, favoring non-fiction, particularly political history, foreign affairs and natural history. And he loved to bird watch and hike on his property in Harrison County, at Eagle Creek and Fort Benjamin Harrison state parks, and elsewhere.
O’Bannon was long in the public eye ‘ nearly seven years as governor, eight as lieutenant governor (1989 to 1996, with Gov. Evan Bayh) and 18 years as a state senator from Corydon, representing all or part of eight Southern Indiana counties. He spent two years as Senate Finance chairman and 11 years as Democratic floor leader.
But his personal life was enormously important. There were few things he loved more than spending time with his family in his rebuilt log barn in his native Harrison County.
O’Bannon was graduated from Corydon High School in 1948 and earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Indiana University in 1952. He served two years in the U.S. Air Force and returned to Bloomington to earn a law degree from I.U. in 1957.
That same year, he married Judy Asmus, whom he met on a blind date in college.
After law school, O’Bannon returned to Corydon with his bride and started a law practice. It was slow at first, so he spent time at the family-owned newspaper, The Corydon Democrat, doing a little bit of everything: shooting pictures, covering general news, writing sports, and stuffing newspaper sections together. O’Bannon wrote the newspaper’s editorial about President Kennedy’s assassination.
Until his death, he was chairman of O’Bannon Publishing Co., which publishes three weeklies, The Corydon Democrat, the Clarion News, and The Monday Shopper in Harrison and Crawford counties.
When O’Bannon was lieutenant governor, he and Judy purchased a home on the Old Northside of Indianapolis. After his election as governor, they lived in the governor’s residence on North Meridian Street in Indianapolis but moved to the Harrison House on the grounds of the former Fort Benjamin Harrison while the governor’s residence is made accessible to people with disabilities. The O’Bannons have three children ‘ Polly, Jennifer and Jonathan ‘ and five grandchildren ‘ Beau, Chelsea, Asher, Demi and Elle.
The late governor is also survived by three sisters, Jane Parker, Rosamond Sample and Margaret Fawver.