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A few moments from the O’Bannon Adventure

Some people figured out early that Frank L. O’Bannon was destined for greatness. Alice Josephine (Fofie) Fey was one of Frank’s classmates at Corydon High School. Frank was president of his class three times in four years. The late Tom Miller, who became a very successful banker in Indianapolis, was president the other year. They graduated in 1948. Fofie modestly says that several people had the same thought, but she is credited with making the prediction back then that someday Frank O’Bannon would be governor. That was more than 50 years ago.

My memory is foggy now, but the first time I sat down to talk with Frank O’Bannon and his father, Robert P. O’Bannon, was one night in 1970, in the kitchen in Bob’s home on Elliott Avenue, where Dr. John and Kathy Norton now live. I had applied for the editor’s job at The Corydon Democrat, and it was an interview. The only specific thing I remember about that conversation ‘ except being nervous ‘ is that when Bob asked me, a relative newcomer to Harrison County, if I thought the county was liberal or conservative, I said something smug like, ‘All the liberals in Harrison County are at this table.’
I thought that was clever, and they must have thought it wasn’t too dumb because they hired me, and I worked for the O’Bannons for 33 years, wishing it could be 33 more. Bob and Frank O’Bannon were not wild-eyed liberals by any means; they were just really decent, grounded people who understood the people in their community, and they were liberal on the right issues: human rights, civil rights, equal rights. You could count on them to support any program that improved the lot of the average Hoosier. It would be hard to imagine anyone more devoted to their state and its people than the O’Bannons.

One day while Frank was driving around several Ohio River counties, mounting his first campaign for the state Senate seat held by his dad for 18 years, I asked him why his father had been so successful. His answer was a surprise. He said it’s because his dad always considered the other person instead of himself. I guess I didn’t understand what he meant until I saw Frank introduce his opponent from Floyd County, who had been overlooked at a public meeting. It was a kind and generous gesture, the kind of thing Frank spent his life doing.
That was one of the keys to Bob and Frank’s success as politicians and human beings: they could work with anyone because they weren’t looking out for themselves. They were always considerate of others, and they were always looking for common ground. They didn’t consider politics a battle or a war. They believed the difficult art of government was a form of servant leadership, a high calling, a way to bring people together, to build community.

Another event illustrates the kind of relationship Frank had with Joe Kernan, the very capable fellow who succeeded Frank as governor after Frank died Sept. 13 of a cerebral hemorrhage in Chicago. It was 1990. Frank was heading a trade delegation to Eastern Europe, where Communist governments were collapsing. A bunch of us were standing around at the little Moscow airport, talking, as usual, and waiting to get on what turned out to be a badly overbooked Aeroflot flight to Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
There was some commotion because the plane was getting ready to leave, and Frank and wife, Judy, were still in the airport. Joe Kernan, the popular mayor of South Bend, was on the plane and he realized what was happening. He roused an Indianapolis businessman who had already gone to sleep and told him that he had to get off the plane because the head of the delegation needed to be on it. I don’t know how Kernan got off the plane or insisted that it not take off because Russian airport officials could be no-nonsense bureaucrats.
I will never forget that moment. Frank and Judy got on the plane, which took off for the Balkans. Six of us, including Kernan and Frank’s executive assistant, John Hamilton, were left in the Moscow Airport, feeling somewhat left out. We had no tickets, passports, visas, luggage or an interpreter. We were so goofy we even thought about somehow getting a ride on the Orient Express to Vienna or somewhere.
Things turned out well. The interpreter showed up as if by magic. We spent the day in the alleged VIP lounge, drinking coffee and beer, and watching planes take off and land. The airport officials were very understanding and helpful, and we finally got in line quite early for a flight out that evening. We happily joined the O’Bannon trade delegation for a wonderful dinner in Belgrade.
It was another O’Bannon Adventure that never could have been predicted.