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‘A convergence of paths walked separately’

Word came on Sept. 13, 2003, that Gov. Frank O’Bannon, the Corydon Democrat from Harrison County, had died at age 73 years. An untimely death!
The ‘word’ bore a bittersweet message for me: bitter, because his death is a great loss to those of us left behind; sweet, because his death frees him from constraints of this world as we know it.
In a very personal way, I grieve the loss of Gov. Frank O’Bannon. I mourn with his wife, our First Lady Judy, along with their kids Polly, Jennifer and Jon. I walk with their spouses alongside the grandchildren of Frank and Judy. I, as they, feel helpless to do more than mourn and go on living.
At the same time, I celebrate Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s entry into eternal life through the gateway of death. Gov. Frank is now free of all suffering and earthly ills.
A personal tribute
At an early morning celebration of Roman Catholic Mass in my home chapel, I remembered Gov. Frank. I prayed for First Lady Judy, and their children Polly, Jennifer and Jon and their families in this time of personal loss. I was distracted at the same time by memories of home and childhood images from our common heritage of Harrison County, Ind.
Following prayer, I went to my front yard to harvest the early morning crop of newly fallen persimmons, those of the early variety.
The very physical movement and purpose caused my heart and memory to be transported to my birth home. Persimmons and persimmon pudding are as native to Harrison County as Frank O’Bannon. He was 73. I am about to be 68. Some of my siblings and their spouses attended Corydon High School and some played basketball as teammates of a star player, Frank O’Bannon.
Although we are contemporary sons of Harrison County, throughout most of our lives our journeys were on different courses. They, however, converged in later years: Frank O’Bannon as the governor of the State of Indiana and Jerry Gettelfinger as the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Evansville Diocese in southwestern Indiana. No one of our families, in the wildest of dreams, could have predicted such a convergence of paths walked separately by two sons of Harrison County.
As a kid growing up in Spencer Township in northwest Harrison County, I came to know the family name O’Bannon meant ‘politician,’ just as I had to learn ‘Democrat’ from ‘Republican.’ At that time, O’Bannon and Gettelfinger meant Democrat, not Republican.
In the realm of religion, experience was a powerful teacher. We lived the meaning of ‘Christian community’ long before I learned the churchy language of the same words. Harrison County is home to a rural community made up primarily of folks of the earth, down-home folks. Even today its families continue to be comprised mostly of Catholics and Protestants.
In our up-growing years, families did everything together. They shared common resources, except for the weekend. Each family worshipped in its own church-house on Sundays. Families lived out religious convictions in each others’ presence in a very simple and unpretentious way, but with fidelity and constancy.
The Gerald Gettelfinger family was Catholic and Democrat.
Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s family was Protestant and Democrat.
Each family was known for its religion and its politics. Each respected the other.
As for politics, the delivery of the county newspapers was the identifier of political preference of the addressee. As bishop now, I endorse the candidate of neither party, but rather look to the issues at hand.
Back then, The Corydon Democrat made its weekly journey to our home. It was one of three newspapers I remember seeing in our home as a child growing up. The O’Bannon family owned and publishes The Corydon Democrat today.
For citizens of Indiana, it must not go unnoticed that the offices of The Corydon Democrat are just across the street from the First State Capitol of Indiana in Corydon and very near the historical memorial of the ‘Constitution Elm,’ under whose branches the Constitution was signed. Ironically or by plan, The Corydon Republican was located on an opposing street.
Personification of this Corydon Democrat
Frank O’Bannon knew community! He knew its meaning. He proclaimed its values throughout his lifetime by personal example and lifestyle. He, too, experienced Christian community without using the words. He didn’t preach it. He lived it. He exemplified it.
Upon reflection, I clearly recall here were two exceptions to community living in rural Harrison County, Indiana. First, we did not argue religion. Second, we did not argue politics. Frank O’Bannon and his family knew these exceptions and understood them very well.
On the other hand, it is clear that Gov. Frank learned from his family and political mentors not to shy away from difficult issues relating to either religion or politics, even though they were not regular fodder for conversation among families in Harrison County.
Gov. Frank, both in his private and public life, always respected the domain of each. He, as I, never wished to diminish the doctrine of the ‘separation of church and state.’
Indeed, Gov. Frank and his dad have taught all of the citizens in the State of Indiana in their public political lives to respect the fact that there are differences of opinion and multiple approaches to all issues. To hold a different opinion or view demands willingness to both listen to and understand other ideas before passing judgment. Then, tolerance, not mean-ness, becomes operative.
Gov. Frank has shown us that one does not have to concede integrity on an issue while being tolerant of a different view.
Gov. Frank O’Bannon and I may be categorized as ‘good old boys’ from Harrison County since we are contemporaries and political compatriots. We differed on significant issues. We agreed on many others.
Be it known, nonetheless, that I stand in awe of Gov. Frank’s simple, forthright, honest and genuine approach to governance. He was tolerant of differences. He respected all who held them. He was unwavering in matters of personal integrity. I viewed him as a gentle senior who was the ultimate in understanding and compassion to the freshman. He was, on the other hand, the fearless and demanding leader of his peers in a quiet but persistent manner.
May we all be as tolerant of others as Gov. Frank has been of us and our differences with him! May we lead as courageously as he in all kinds of weather! May our belief in and fidelity to God be as strong as his!
The Most Rev. Gerald A. Gettelfinger is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Evansville.