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Governor of Indiana
January 13, 1997- September 13, 2003
Artist: Michael Allan Chelich, American, b. 1963
oil on canvas, 39 x 54
Frank O'Bannon, who was elected Nov. 5, 1996, and Nov. 7, 2000, was a tenacious consensus-builder who quietly pressed others to do the right thing for the people of Indiana, especially children. O'Bannon's concern for children was reflected in his inaugurations, which made history for very different reasons. He invited Indiana's fourth-grade students – who study Indiana history – to witness his Jan. 13, 1997, inauguration, something no governor had ever done. Despite sub-zero temperatures, hundreds of Hoosier school children, for the first time ever, watched as their governor was sworn in at a ceremony on the west side of the Statehouse.
After his reelection, the governor repeated his invitation to a new crop of fourth-grade history students. Recalling the daunting weather, organizers moved the festivities inside the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. More than 25,000 students and visitors watched as the first governor of the 21st century was sworn in Jan. 8, 2001, making it the largest gubernatorial inauguration crowd in Indiana history.
O'Bannon's love of children showed in his agenda. He created Building Bright Beginnings to emphasize the importance of emotional and brain development of children from birth to 4 years of age. Under his leadership, Hoosier Healthwise provided health care to nearly half a million children who did not have insurance, making Indiana a national leader. And working with Suellen Reed, the superintendent of public instruction, O'Bannon induced the strangest of political bedfellows to join the Education Roundtable, which tackled the most intractable problems facing public schools. The results – some of the toughest academic standards and accountability system in the country – ensured that Indiana was one of the first states to meet new federal standards, its children learned more and Hoosier schools improved significantly.
In 2002, O'Bannon persuaded lawmakers to restructure the state's tax system, making it more conducive to job creation, and to extend $1 billion in property tax relief to homeowners, mitigating the effects of a court-ordered change in Indiana's method of assessing property.
In 2003, he persuaded the legislature to pass Energize Indiana, a comprehensive economic development package that took advantage of Indiana's economic promise in four high-tech sectors: the life sciences, advanced manufacturing, information technology and distribution.
In both of those years, O'Bannon, unlike any other governor in the nation, took steps to mitigate a serious budget deficit and addressed long-term ways to improve the economy.
O'Bannon created the state's first Community College system, providing a higher education alternative for Hoosiers for whom a four-year college was not a good fit, and moved people with developmental disabilities from state institutions to less-restrictive community settings. He firmly believed in open government and the freedom of the press, and created the state's first public access counselor to help citizens get government information.
O'Bannon was the first Indiana governor to have a computer on his desk and used the Internet and e-mail long before that became routine.
O'Bannon served eight years as lieutenant governor (1989 to 1996) and 18 years as a state senator from Corydon, representing all or part of eight Southern Indiana counties. He was Senate Finance chairman for two years and Democratic floor leader for 11. Throughout his public career, he was chairman of the O'Bannon Publishing Co., which published weekly newspapers in Harrison and Crawford counties.
O'Bannon was graduated from Corydon High School in 1948 and received a bachelor's degree in government from Indiana University in 1952. He served two years in the U.S. Air Force, returning to Bloomington to earn a law degree from IU in 1957. That same year, he married Judy Asmus, whom he met on a blind date. As first lady, Judy O'Bannon promoted the arts, community development and historic preservation. The O'Bannons had three children and five grandchildren.
O'Bannon, 73, was felled by a stroke Sept. 8, 2003, while attending an international trade meeting in Chicago and died five days later, 16 months before his term was to end. A Statehouse visitation featuring his official portrait drew thousands of mourners, who wrote condolences and memories in books. More than 5,000 people attended a memorial service on the west steps of the Statehouse, the site of his first inauguration. It was followed by a hometown service attended by more than 3,000 people in Corydon.