Living a Life of Service

December 4, 2005

Available for immediate publication

ImageINDIANAPOLIS — Albert Schweitzer said, "The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others."

By that measure, Frank O’Bannon lived a rich and purpose-filled life.

During 33 years of elective office, his purpose never wavered. Perhaps that’s why, when asked to recall the best of O’Bannon, folks rarely mention a piece of legislation, a veto message or any official act of government he exercised.

Instead, they say things like "Santaland," the holiday assistance program O’Bannon and his wife, Judy, launched in the garage of their Indianapolis home during his tenure as lieutenant governor.

Each Christmas, disadvantaged children and their parents come to Santaland to pick out presents for each other. They go home not just with wrapped gifts, but a shopping bag of food to make a Christmas feast.

After just a few years, Santaland outgrew the O’Bannons’ garage. It’s now held in the Old Centrum community center and draws almost as many volunteers as it does families needing help. It feels good, explained one, to help people and be with Frank and Judy for a day.

In his book, "The Active Life," sociologist Parker Palmer describes a way of living in service to others that can almost take the place of prayer. O’Bannon, a loyal Methodist who never wore his Christianity on his sleeve, epitomized that.

Santaland was just one of many examples. There are dozens more and no doubt hundreds that occurred from far the cameras. "A life of service and dedication" is how Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, put it.

In this era of self-absorption and cynicism, it’s hard to fathom someone giving three decades of life to public service. That’s what O’Bannon did, serving first in the Senate, then two terms as lieutenant governor before his 1996 election as governor.

Thirty-three years of service, multiplied by two. Hoosiers can’t talk about Frank without adding the phrase, "and Judy."

With Judy at his side, the gentlemanly and soft-spoken governor became half of a dynamic duo.

With Judy at his side, O’Bannon’s good works could multiply: A community garden. An open invitation to children to visit the governor’s mansion. Special events for those with special needs. Generous donations to charity. Promising to be present for the first day of the first year of a chess camp for Indianapolis Public School kids. Pausing to visit with each and every camper.

O’Bannon will have political legacies, too, of course. Although he governed Indiana during hard economic times, his administration can claim credit for writing some of the nation’s best academic standards in language arts, math and social studies. It will be five to 10 years before Hoosiers see the fruits of those proficiency standards in better-performing students with deeper content knowledge in their fields of study.

His decision this summer to grant a reprieve to allow DNA testing for Death Row inmate Darnell Williams may also have lasting significance. Though O’Bannon supported the death penalty, his compassion ultimately led him to do something no other governor had done since capital punishment was reinstituted in 1977. He did not want to risk the possibility, however slim, of an innocent man being executed.

"It is not enough merely to exist," said Albert Schweitzer. "It"s not enough to say, "I"m earning enough to support my family. I do my work well. I"m a good father, husband, churchgoer." That"s all very well. But you must do something more. Seek always to do some good, somewhere."

Frank O’Bannon always sought to do some good, some where. It’s why he was on record to be an organ donor should the circumstance arise.

So how shall we Hoosiers honor his memory?

In lieu of sending flowers, do some good, some where. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Tutor a child. Sign up to be an organ donor. Vote. Run for office. Work at the polls on election day.

Frank O’Bannon did a lot of good over 73 years. He would want us to pay it forward.

Neal, formerly editorial page editor of The Indianapolis Star, is an adjunct scholar and columnist for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Her e-mail address is


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