‘She taught us in walk and talk about grace’
I write today about a role model I have been blessed to observe, engage and follow over the last year. I offer her to you as I intend to keep her before me ‘ a picture of leadership grace.
It may seem a bit peculiar for a 45-year-old man in the prime of his professional working career to so admire a silver-haired, blue-streak-talking lady Hoosier, but then my role and this woman’s character are both a bit out of the ordinary. Until 10 days ago when her husband died, Judy O’Bannon was my counterpart, playing the role of Indiana’s indefatigable First Lady.
Jennifer (my wife and governor of Michigan) and I went to Indiana to pay our respects at the passing of Gov. Frank O’Bannon. We hoped offering the effort of travel to their rural hometown church and a few moments of praise and presence would outweigh the burden we were laying on her. We wondered as we pulled out of our driveway at home: Did Judy really need one more visitor ‘ and a ‘political’ one, no less ‘ to take care of, at a time when she would surely like to be taken care of? Later, as we closed the car doors and rolled away from the church, with tens of neighbors and admirers angling to be close to Judy, we looked at each other and shook our heads in amazement at her grace.
Imagine what was going on personally. She had lost her husband of 46 years. Endured his sudden stroke, hospitalization in a neighboring state, days of coma, transferring of power to the lieutenant governor, worsened condition and decision not to prolong his life, and then four days of nearly non-stop public and private ceremonies. She not only lost her husband, but her house, her title, her beloved staff, the volunteer job she absolutely exulted in ‘ in one sudden bolt of change.
In our half hour with her, we walked beside her past the photos and portraits, while she taught us in walk and talk about grace. ‘If anything terrible like this happens, don’t you worry; you’ll find that you know just what to do,’ she told us. And ‘the people in this small town,’ she said, ‘are so delighted to have a governor come to their town ‘ and a woman governor at that.’
And with each introduction of my wife ‘ to a neighbor, a surviving sister, and especially to children ‘ she lifted them up, told their stories, sang their praises. ‘Sunny is so intellectually gifted,’ she told us of a 12-year-old, who seemed to rise a half-inch taller by the telling, uplifted by this woman of grace. She taught ‘ it seemed she had to teach ‘ the kids, my wife and me, perhaps herself, too. ‘You’ll love working with Joe (Kernan),’ she said to Jennifer about her husband’s successor, building positive expectations for him as she had for decades for her husband.
In grace, and by grace, we subjugate ourselves to play roles that stabilize, teach and serve others. We rise above our hurts and losses, our fears and grief, to bring a moment of grace, to allow others to weep, to savor and to move on. No weeping widow ‘ it was as if the people of Indiana had lost their governor-granddad, and Judy O’Bannon in this difficult time was filling up the space for the both of them.
The worlds in which you exercise leadership have their moments of deep loss and confusion ‘ sometimes public and sometimes private, but because we’re human, always personal. Would that we all bore ourselves with the grace of Mrs. Judy O’Bannon, to teach, serve and uplift those around us.