Sunday, September 8, 2013


Surrounded by pins and signs and photos from days gone by, Tom New singled out an 8x10, black and white photo that any Hoosier political junkie would easily recognize as part of every campaign Frank O'Bannon waged in his years at the top of Indiana government.

It's his Indiana University basketball team photo that clearly shows him as a member of the team.

Holding it up, the governor's former campaign director and chief of staff recounted an old and favorite story about how the governor saw the use of that photo as a stretch. He'd never actually played in a "real" game. His action came in practice games, and he really didn't like using the photo for campaigning.

It was one of the few times Tom and the two-term governor argued, and it typified the man who was a true believer in the power of the team and whose leadership style elevated everyone around him. He didn't like using his IU basketball photo because it left the impression he'd had a larger role than he'd actually had.

Problem was, basketball-crazy Hoosiers across the state loved it, and so in every campaign, it was part of the story. At one point Judy suggested the politicos play up Frank's All-American status in volleyball where he actually was a key player. 

"That didn't poll as well," she deadpanned this weekend at a gathering to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the governor's death. 

It was a relatively small group. The organizers knew if there was a blanket invitation, there wouldn't be room to hold everyone who had a special connection to Frank O'Bannon. He was just that kind of guy. Regardless of whether they'd been there from the beginning or nearer the end, everyone gathered at that little shelter house in Rocky Ripple Saturday hold their memories close. 

I'd covered him as a news reporter and I remember my first interiew with him. I'd had to go through Donna Imus, his press secretary when he was Lieutenant Governor. She scared the beejesus out of me and still can, truth be told.  

I didn't have a grand scheme to work for FOB, though I did admire him. It was years and a career change later that I got my chance, and  I will be forever grateful to him and Phil Bremen, who lobbied to get me, for bringing me on board. 

Being deputy press secretary and later Director of Commuications has had a huge impact on my professional life. But the perks weren't just professional. 

My father's faith in the Democratic Party was second only to his Pentecostal faith. His religion and his nature forbade him from out and out bragging, but he was inordinately proud of my time in the Statehouse. 

I once staffed Governor O'Bannon at a fundraiser in Sullivan County. (It's always smart to bring a local girl/boy-made-good when you're out and about...) The governor knew my dad was there, so he made a much bigger deal of my role on the team than it actually was. For FOB, I think it was more than a savvy political move to made a big deal of a near-hometown girl. He was a father, too.  I can still see the grin on my dad's face.

I've never been known for following my father's faith, but in a post 9-11 speech I wrote for the governor, I used a line of Scripture. The governor was a man of faith, too, but like my dad, lived it rather than pushing it onto anyone else. The speech was at an event headlined by the father of Todd Beamer, ("Let's roll") who'd help down one the hijacked Flight 93. Using my remarks, the governor made a reference to Beamer's sacrifice.

The speech was apparently well received and later, the governor was kidding me about using that particular line. I retorted something like, "Hey, I know my Scripture!" 

He grinned and with the devil in his eyes and pointed out that within his preparation material, which I'd included with the speech, I'd left a print out where I'd Googled to find right words and the correct citation. "I don't think you know it that well," he said.

Another time, Cindy Athey called me and said the governor wanted to see me. She didn't elaborate and I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach like when you get called to the principal's office. I was in his office a lot, but generally knew why beforehand. 

I get in there and he says he's just gotten a copy of a book that collected some of the most inspirational or noteworthy speeches made in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. Still wondering what I was doing there, I nodded and went along with him.

He handed me the book. I flipped through it to see some really famous people with excerpts of their commentary. "Look at page 52," he said. And there he was with a line or two.

"You wrote that," he reminded me.

In a world where we're grappling with what to do over poisonous gas attacks, economic turmoil, human rights issues  and difficulties within our own personal lives, these flashbacks aren't really important at all. But they're special to me and anyone who knew FOB has hundreds of his or her own memories and storiees about him.

He sincerely cared about people and he actively worked to improve lives without ever taking full credit. He made you want to be a better person.

He'd done the hard work in actually delivering that speech, and it was his picture in the book. But he made a point to give it to me and to make sure I knew that he valued me. He probably got a bigger kick out of seeing my reaction to the thing than he did in seeing his name next to internationally known leaders.

When I was a news reporter, I learned a lot about writing, reporting, being organized and working ahead to make up for unexpectedly busy times. 

I learned how to be a better human being from Frank O'Bannon, Judy O'Bannon, Cindy Athey, Lois Stewart, Margaret Burlingame, Bobby Small, and dozens of other people who were core to the FOB team. Not that I always follow their edicts and examples. I do, however, always wear a slip now when my dress or skirt is even somewhat filmy. 

Alison was born while I worked with the FOB team. She was the first baby in a while and the Skirts (you ladies know who you are) made sure I had advice and support. The Mini-Skirts (you know who you are) did their part, too. Judy and Jonathan Swain came to visit her in her first days on the planet. 

Alison pointed out her letters on the state seal in the governor's office carpet, gnawed on the furniture and toddled around the place like she was at home. 

Because it was just like home.

When the governor suffered a stroke that September day 10 years ago, we all came back home to that office, streaming in the doors like lost children trying to find our way. It was a terrible, terrible day but we mobilized almost on auto-pilot because we were a team. Because we were a family.

Yesterday was a lot like a family reunion. And I'm grateful and honored and all over again to have had the privilige of working with the team that Frank O'Bannon built, and for still having them as friends. 

I'm sure I'll be a better person again. At least for a least a little while...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a wonderful reminiscence and reminder Cheryl. Hear hear.

SIG...nature Notes said...

God bless Governor O'Bannon.

Angela said...

Cheryl - thanks for the lovely flashback. I wanted to "amen" you the whole way through. I'll bet it was just lovely to be with everyone again. It made me think of the time we were at the Christmas event (what was it called? my mind is going blank) and a kid threw up and the Governor got a bucket and mop and was heading to CLEAN IT UP, because that's what he did. I stopped him and did it instead... and I think he's the only man I would ever do that for (I would never step in to clean up puke that Todd was getting ready to clean : ) hope all is well...

Cheryl said...

So true! Nice to hear from you, too! We did talk (well) about you. :)