Frank O'Bannon · 2007

By Ernie Wilkinson

The numerous people whose lives have been touched positively by Frank O’Bannon would heartily agree that this modest man was a Hoosier hero. That is how Myles Brand, National Collegiate Athletic Association president, summed up Frank’s life shortly after his untimely death in September 2003 in the midst of his second term as governor of Indiana.

“Frank O’Bannon is a Hoosier hero,” Brand said. “He worked tirelessly and effectively on behalf of the citizens of Indiana. He was a modest man and cared very deeply about others. He was a man of great substance, character and intellect. I know first-hand while serving (as president of) Indiana University that he was committed to all levels of education, including higher education. Frank O’Bannon made a difference in this world and he will be long remembered and loved.”

Frank’s commitment to the people of Indiana included a passion for openness in government and the role of the media in keeping the public informed about the actions of their elected and appointed public servants. He understood and appreciated the role of journalism in a free society from his varied career that included that of being a reporter for the family-owned Corydon Democrat, a weekly newspaper in his southern Indiana hometown.

Born January 30, 1930, Frank grew up in Corydon. He was graduated from Corydon High School where he was an outstanding member of the school’s Panthers basketball team. He exhibited leadership while in high school. He was president of his senior class and of the basketball team. Another of his activities was singing barbershop with a group of friends. They performed at various community events.

Frank received national attention in 1948 when Jack Armstrong Magazine named him an “All-American Boy” because of his act of bravery in saving his brother Robert from drowning in the Blue River in 1946. He also was honored for this feat by the Boy Scouts of America and the Red Cross.

After high school Frank attended Indiana University, earning a bachelor’s degree in government and playing some basketball. Leadership continued in his veins at IU. There he was secretary and later president of Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity. After two years of service in the Air Force, Frank returned to IU to earn a law degree in 1957.

That same year he married Judy Asmus. They had met on a blind date. They set up housekeeping in Corydon. Here they reared their three children. Frank and Judy were active in the community. Frank sang in the Corydon United Methodist Church choir, taught a Sunday school class and served as chairman of the church parish relations committee. In addition to practicing law, Frank worked for the Corydon Democrat, writing news and sports stories, taking photographs and even doing some of the grunt work in the back shop.

Frank followed in the footsteps of his father, the late Robert P. O’Bannon, long-time editor of the weekly and a member of the Indiana Senate for 20 years. Like son, the father was a stanch Southern Indiana Democrat and highly respected. When the elder O’Bannon retired from the Senate Frank was elected to his seat in 1970. The elder O’Bannon was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1971.

As his father had, Frank moved into leadership roles in the Senate. There he was known as a consensus builder. He was the Democratic floor leader from 1979 to 1988. In 1988 Frank ran for governor but gave up his primary campaign in the interest of party unity and agreed to be the lieutenant governor candidate. He served two terms in that role during the eight-year tenure of Governor Evan Bayh.

During these eight years Frank and his wife Judy moved into a blighted neighborhood in Indianapolis’ Historic Old North Side. They helped revitalize the neighborhood. Here on warm summer nights they held backyard parties for members of the Statehouse press corps. They were most gracious hosts.

As lieutenant governor Frank served as head of the state’s economic development programs and presided over the Senate as its president. As head of the Senate his votes broke ties on two controversial issues and set him apart as a man of conviction.
Frank defeated former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith to become Indiana’s 47th governor of Indiana in 1997. As governor he led the efforts to reform K-12 public education which resulted in toughened academic standards. He also oversaw the creation of a community college system for Indiana while keeping an eye on attempts to deny the public’s right to keep abreast of the acts of its public servants.

Frank was committed to open government. He enjoyed an outstanding relationship with reporters who covered his administration. He held weekly news conferences. By executive order he created the Office of Public Access Counselor to assist reporters and the public at large in obtaining access to public records and meetings at all levels of government. The office was created after a series of articles in Indiana newspapers reported on difficulties to see public records.

Frank’s passion for openness was exemplified by his reaction on learning during an editorial meeting with The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette that the paper had been denied copies of records by the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Andrew E. Stoner in his biography, The Life of Indiana’s Frank O’Bannon, wrote that the governor was infuriated. By the end of that day the newspaper had copies of the requested records.

One of Frank’s boldest actions was his veto in 2001 of a General Assembly bill that would have denied public access to some of the records of state representatives and senators, including e-mails on publicly-owned computers. Stephen Key, the Hoosier State Press Association general counsel, said the veto was “an example of personal courage and moral conviction … Frank O’Bannon’s entire career was one that fostered an open and transparent government.”

The Hoosier State Press Association has named The Corydon Democrat the Blue Ribbon Weekly of Indiana 14 times. Jackie Carpenter, editor of The Democrat said that “these honors were due in part to Frank. He did not manage the newsroom. He hired good people and let them do their job.”

Many other honors have been bestowed on Frank. They include the Hoosier State Press Association’s highest award, Indiana Newspaper Publishers’ Free Freedom Award. The association also has established the Frank O’Bannon Sunshine Award to recognize citizens and government officials for their efforts in keeping government open.

Frank O’Bannon now has the distinct honor of having his name placed on the membership roll of the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame that includes his father’s name.

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