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Press group honors O’Bannon

The Hoosier State Press Association posthumously presented last week the late Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon with its highest award, the Indiana Newspaper Publishers First Freedom Award.
The award was presented Thursday to O’Bannon’s widow, former First Lady Judy O’Bannon, at the First Freedom Award luncheon during the HSPA’s 2004 Annual Meeting and Government Conference in Indianapolis.
Judy O’Bannon said her husband of 45 years had learned the newspaper business and developed strong feelings about the role of a free press in the community as he grew up, wrote stories and practiced law in Corydon: His family business, the O’Bannon Publishing Co., published The Corydon Democrat. He eventually became a part-owner.
O’Bannon, Indiana’s 47th governor, died at age 73 last September after suffering a massive stroke at a trade conference in Chicago.
He had been a well-regarded state senator for 18 years, lieutenant governor for eight years, and was in the third year of his second four-year term as governor when he died.
‘Throughout his career, Gov. Frank O’Bannon was a strong advocate for open government,’ said HSPA President Robert Allman, publisher of the Albion New Era, the Churubusco News and the Northwest News in Huntertown. ‘His creation of the office of Public Access Counselor in 1998 is one of many examples of his dedication to the public’s right to know.
‘But he also championed public access throughout his administration. In 2001 he vetoed HEA 1083, an act exempting the state legislature from the Access to Public Records Act. In his veto, Gov. O’Bannon said, ‘I believe an open government is essential to a free society.’ ‘
Stephen Key, HSPA’s general counsel, said O’Bannon could have played it safe politically with the legislators, many of whom were old friends and colleagues, by letting the bill become law without his signature. However, he vetoed the bill, saying it was a ‘step backward’ in efforts to keep legislative matters open to the public, an Associated Press story said last week.
A year later, the House sustained the veto after many legislators reversed their positions, the AP said.
Key said O’Bannon’s veto was ‘an example of personal courage and moral conviction that I’ll always remember.’
Judy O’Bannon said her husband ‘realized that it’s a bonding element of a community that if people don’t have free access to information, they can’t participate.’
The HSPA instituted the First Freedom Award in 1978 to recognize continuing service and commitment to the cause of humanity’s right to freedom of information and expression. Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh (who spoke at O’Bannon’s first inauguration in 1997) was the first recipient. O’Bannon is the 12th.
The HSPA also announced a new special award named for the late governor: the Frank O’Bannon Sunshine Award. It will recognize citizens and government officials for their work in keeping government open to the public. The first award will be given at next year’s publishers meeting.
O’Bannon created the Office of Public Access Counselor in 1998 after a group of newspapers detailed abuse of the state Public Records Act.
The office responds to inquiries and complaints about public access to public records and meetings and recommends solutions. The first public access counselor was Anne Mullin O’Connor, who stepped down just last year. Newspaper people around the state considered her very responsive and effective. One big reason for her success was the extraordinary support she got from the governor’s office, something not seen in every other state.
‘No other state had a Frank O’Bannon,’ she said.
Denny Huber, president and publisher of O’Bannon Publishing Co., also attended the banquet and shared some personal memories of Frank O’Bannon. Huber started working for O’Bannon Publishing on Jan. 8, 1973.
‘While Frank traveled the world over, he was always happiest when he returned to Indiana,’ Huber said. ‘He enjoyed visiting various communities, talking to the people and listening to the townsfolk about their concerns.
‘Frank’s vision was to give every Hoosier in Indiana the opportunity to lead a better life. His decisions and judgments were made from his mind and his heart, not from political pressures.’
Several local people were remembered during the association’s necrology report, in addition to Gov. O’Bannon. His brother, Robert O’Bannon of Bradenton, Fla., a part-owner of O’Bannon Publishing Co., died Dec. 23, 2002, at age 71. Fred Cromwell, director of advertising for The Corydon Democrat and a 41-year employee, died March 12, 2003, at age 66. Huber’s father, Lee Huber, of Cannelton, died Nov. 2, 2003, at age 91. He was involved with newspapers in Cannelton from 1947 to 1949.