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Friday, May 6, 2016

Mourning our Loss

Thursday, September 18, 2003

INDIANAPOLIS -- Even as Indiana's most powerful politician, there was nothing pretentious about Frank O'Bannon.

He drank cold coffee from a mug. He often held the door for others, not the other way around. When a major economic development plan he was pushing squeaked to passage in the House one day, he exchanged high-fives with his governor's office staff.

He often ate lunch in the government center cafeteria, waiting in line and making small talk like everyone else. Lunch on the plane usually came from a sack, and dinner at home from the microwave.

If his press aides prepared remarks or news releases saying he was "proud" of something, he changed it to "pleased." In most circumstances, he considered pride to be a vice.

"He was almost out of place as governor," said longtime friend and political colleague Bob Kovatch. "He never went with the trappings of the office."

It is because he was governor that sadness over his death on Saturday stretches statewide. But it was O'Bannon the man, not the politician, that drives the sentiment so deep for so many.

Some of the most powerful memories about him come from the simple things about him.

Fred Griffin, one of O'Bannon's high school teachers in the southern Indiana town of Corydon, remembers O'Bannon as a teenager singing in a barbershop quartet. They called themselves "The Delinquent Four," Griffin said, but some folks called them "The Peachfuzz Four" because they were just starting to grow whiskers.

"He was on our basketball team all four years," Griffin said. "He was small of stature, but he was quick in his movements and had an eye for the basket, so he could hold his own with these larger opponents."

During eight years as lieutenant governor and seven more as governor, O'Bannon lived most of his days in Indianapolis. But he always called Corydon home, and most folks there always called him Frank. He stopped in to see Griffin this past Labor Day weekend.

"He never forgot where he came from," Griffin said.

Even in the hustled, cutthroat world of politics, O'Bannon took time to savor the little things.

Early one October morning before a road trip in his run for governor in 1996, he was spotted outside, alone, snapping pictures of the banner-strapped bus.

During a stump stop at a school one day, O'Bannon shook hands with teachers, administrators and local officials and gave a little speech about his dedication to education. Then he headed down the hall to chat with some elementary kids.

"This is the really fun part," he whispered to a reporter, smiling the way kids do when they're getting on a pony or a rollercoaster. He ate those moments up.

When he was returning from an event in northwestern Indiana as lieutenant governor one day, he asked Kovatch to take a detour. O'Bannon was an avid bird watcher and wanted to see some sandhill cranes at a state game preserve.

"I said, 'Man, you're cutting into my beer-drinking time,"' Kovatch said. But a few minutes later, there they were, "watching sandhill cranes, just munching and talking."

Around midnight on the millennium in 2000, he presided over a longtime reporter's wedding.

He knew one reporter was very close to his dog. Two days after the reporter was forced to put the old dog down, he found a letter of sympathy from the governor in his mail box.

Two hours after reporters sang "Happy Birthday" to O'Bannon during a weekly availability with him, he had a thank-you note posted in the press office. It said that despite the awful singing, he appreciated the gesture.

O'Bannon's was a subtle sort of sense of humor.

One night in January 2001, someone fired a shot into the home of Vigo County Schools Superintendent Dan Tanoos, the bullet grazing his head. Tanoos said when he was in O'Bannon's Statehouse office about a month later, the governor asked him to move away from the big bay window.

"He said, 'If they miss you, they might hit me."'

There was no flash and nothing fake about Frank O'Bannon. It's that part about him that sentiments run so deep.

"He never tried to overpower anyone. That just wasn't his style," Kovatch said. "Some people perceived that as a personal weakness, but there was nothing weak about the man."

During a going-away reception on his last day in the administration a few years ago, Kovatch thanked the governor for his years of friendship and public service. Then he said something simple, yet powerful.

"You're a good governor," Kovatch told O'Bannon. "But you're a better man."


"I have known Governor O'Bannon since 1996, when I met him at an Indiana State Teachers Association Conference in Fort Wayne. Gov. O'Bannon is truly a gentlemen. He is an inspiration to all of us in politics."

-- Tom Arthur ,Brazil City Democratic Mayoral Candidate


"The service that he contributed to the State of Indiana for so many years has been tremendous.

"I knew Mrs. O'Bannon better than I knew the governor. She has been in Brazil several times, working on the main street program of Indiana when he was lieutenant governor. Since he became governor, he worked on the the 2016 program to celebrate the (state's) bicentennial. She's such a wonderful, wonderful person. My sympathy goes out to to her and the family. They can be strong knowing what Frank O'Bannon contributed to the State of Indiana."

-- Kenny Crabb. Mayor of Brazil


"I will be attending the ceremony at the statehouse tomorrow. My prayers are with the O'Bannon family and the people of Indiana. Gov. O'Bannon was a decent and honorable public servant."

-- State Rep. Andrew Thomas


"He was a great governor. Frank was a people's governor, one who was a very caring man, very concerned for his voters. He and his wife are genuinely wonderful people. I think the thing I enjoyed about him was that he always seemed to know you. and if he didn't, you thought he did.

"Don and I were very sad when we heard (about his passing). I thought his way of governing was special. He has been in politics a long time. He and his wife reflected that they truly cared about the state of Indiana. They were such helpmates together.

"I think the new governor, Joe Kernan will be able to do this job. He is a strong individual. He, too, is a prince of a fellow."

-- Linda Moreau, Clay County Democratic Party Chair

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