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A Living Legend

Judy O’Bannon of Corydon will be honored by the Indiana Historic Society as a ‘Living Legend’ ‘ a title given to ‘a select group of Hoosiers for their significant contributions to the state and society,’ according to a media release from the independent, nonprofit organization.
The historic society honors a varying number of ‘legends’ annually. This year O’Bannon will be joined by four others, including Mari Evans, an accomplished poet, playwright, composer and lyricist; Richard Ford, philanthropist and chairman-elect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation; George McGinnis, one of the great power forwards in the history of basketball; and Dr. Charles Webb, dean emeritus, Indiana University School of Music.
The fab five will be celebrated at a fund-raising gala on July 23 in Indianapolis.
O’Bannon was the hands-down favorite among members of the selection committee, said Eadie Barrie, the historical society’s director of annual support and donor relations.
What does the award mean to her? ‘I’m still from the living list,’ replied the energetic O’Bannon who will celebrate her 69th birthday on April 30.
‘I have no interest in sitting by a swimming pool or just languishing about. Security and prosperity don’t interest me terribly much. I just find it unstimulating,’ the former First Lady of Indiana said.
Nonetheless, her pace has slowed somewhat.
She hadn’t carried keys, driven a car or carried a cellular phone for seven years while her husband, the late Frank L. O’Bannon, served as governor. She had her own staff of eight assistants, and, during the only year figures were kept, delivered 370 keynote speeches.
That staggering number is no longer a possibility without her support staff, but when O’Bannon said she accepted the award ‘on behalf of the team,’ she was referring to her husband, who died of a stroke last September. ‘After Frank passed away, I could have come back and rested on the farm, but I think I would die. My body might still be walking around, but I think I would die,’ she said.
‘It is in giving yourself to other people, getting involved in what they are doing,’ that O’Bannon finds her motivation.
‘The feedback is just overwhelming. When they allow you to help them, that is humbling. You realize that you have a need and this other person is giving you a great gift by allowing you into their life to be part of what they are doing,’ she said.
O’Bannon has been awarded honorary degrees from Anderson University, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, the University of Southern Indiana, Vincennes University and Wabash College.
During her time as First Lady, she referred to the Governor’s Residence as ‘the State’s Living Room,’ and she worked to ensure that all Hoosiers were welcome, including spearheading the drive to make the home accessible to people with disabilities.
In recent years, O’Bannon has led community-building delegations to South Africa to meet with organizations and local officials on issues related to education, volunteerism, HIV/AIDS, youth development and the arts.
She had led a similar delegation to Russia, where, she said, there is no word for volunteer in the national language, and she has participated in several medical and humanitarian missions to Moldova in Eastern Europe.
O’Bannon has held numerous leadership roles. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in social work. She was a Rockefeller Theological Scholar and was the first woman to attend the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Currently, O’Bannon chairs the 25-member Indiana 2016 Task Force, encouraging Hoosiers to set the state’s bicentennial birthday in 2016 as a target for long-term goals.
O’Bannon also hosts the WFYI-produced television series called ‘Communities Building Community.’ The series of 13 half-hour programs is entering its second season. In addition to hosting, O’Bannon writes and produces series segments.