1999 Lifetime Achievement Award: Thomas Binford

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Thomas Binford

There is a great deal and never enough to say about Tom Binford. Since his passing in January, heartfelt tributes have come from all quarters of our community. Let this one begin with a few facts: Tom Binford was born in Indianapolis in 1924. He attended Park School and Phillips Exeter Academy. After a stint in the Army during World War II he received a bachelors degree from Princeton University. In 1954 he earned a law degree from Indiana University.

But these facts hardly prepare us for the impact Tom Binford would have on Indianapolis. An impact that would be felt in corporate board rooms and in the City-County Council building; along the track at Indianapolis 500 and in neighborhoods all over the city.

Grace, dignity, intelligence. These three words that recur when one hears people describing Tom Binford today. Binford was not a physically imposing man; he was persistent. And in his persistence he was, above all, courageous. To understand how courageous, one must try to remember the attitudes that governed this city in the mid 1970s when Binford began to really make his mark. Here is what one (unnamed) community leader said about him in 1976, when Binford was called the citys Most Trusted Leader in The Indianapolis Star. If he has any weaknesses its that he tends to jump very quickly abroad any bandwagon thats pro-black, pro-minority or pro-civil rights, without assessing the impact on the majority element. He tends to be naively liberal.

What this unnamed source failed to take into account was that Tom Binford was, in fact, carefully assessing the impact of being pro-civil rights on the citys majority element and concluding that if Indianapolis was going to move successfully into the future it was going to do it as a community that recognized and respected its diversity. Indeed, what would come to be called cultural diversity was not an idea or a fad to Tom Binford. It was a defining fact of American life.

By now youve probably read accounts of all the institutions, organizations and groups that were affected by the breadth of Tom Binfords support, participation and enthusiasm. Heres a partial list: He served on boards of the United Negro College Fund of Indiana, Indianas branch of the National Conference of Christian and Jews, the Christian Theological Seminary and Alpha Home of Greater Indianapolis. He was a chairman of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, CEO of Indiana National Corporation, chairman of Burnet-Binford Lumber, acting president of DePauw University, president of the Indiana Pacers, chair and director of the Indianapolis Raceway Park and Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, president of the Indiana Academy, chair of the Indianapolis Alliance for Jobs and the Heritage Venture Group and a founder of the Indianapolis Urban League. Binford was also chief steward of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race for 22 years.

In the mid 1970s Binford sat simultaneously on the boards of roughly 20 civil or charitable organizations, including the United Way, GIPC and the Indiana Committee of the United States Civil Rights Commission. He estimated that he spent 30 percent of his time on auto racing, 50 percent on civil activities and 20 percent on board meetings and business. All this and he answered his own phone. It is my feeling, he once said, that if people want to call Tom Binford they want to talk to me not my secretaries.

The above is vintage Binford. There is more. In 1983 when he was appointed chairman of the citys Chamber of Commerce, Binford observed: I may be a maverick, but I have always worked within the system. Im a reformer not a revolutionary. Maybe thats why he stayed with this city the way he did he loved it too much to run it down or leave it behind.

Im a great believer in process, he said in a newspaper interview. I believe that means justify ends. How you do something is equally important as what you do. Process according to Binford, meant first going out and gathering ideas from as many sources as possible. Many people in this community think decisions are made by two or three people in somebodys office and I will say there have been the seminal ideas that started that way, but they are just as apt to have started in large groups and worked their way around.

Next you kick your ideas around in public. You horse trade a little, you make some compromises and, based on what you consider the art of the possible, you set your priorities. Having gone this far , you proceed to do what needs to be done within the system to reach your goals.

If you dont let [people] make the decision, youve got to help them like the decision. said Binford on process. Its the difference between a healthy community that believes in itself and believes it has some power, and a powerless community that becomes apathetic.

Binford made it clear, through his words and actions, that inclusion wasnt merely a great abstraction. It was the key to creating a prosperous, sustainable city. A city that works. I think, he said, our whole system of social services to those who cant afford to pay for their needs is absolutely essential if we are going to preserve a free enterprise system that encourages risk.

My vision, he continued, is that the enthusiasm and resources that have gone into Indianapolis so far will continue and will be used to develop a concern for the more fundamental needs of our people, especially housing, education, and cultural development.

His colleagues often wondered how Binford did it. They also wondered why Binford was willing to get involved with so many ideas and ventures that seemed to them like shots-in-the dark. Ideas and ventures, in other words, that werent already successful. But Binford realized that influence is most valuable where where it is most needed: When he was asked about his willingness to line up with underdogs he said, A lot of people arent willing to do that, Particularly with their avocation or civic work or civic work. Theyll take The United Way or Boy Scouts. I prefer a challenge.

It wasnt that Binford was supremely confident. He took the post of steward at the 500 at a time when the race was in shambles. He confessed to nightmares; in a dream he saw the track was jammed with race cars, passenger cars and wreckers racing through the turns five abreast. Fire and smoke could be seen in the distance. The dream was in Technicolor. As dark fell, the race continued I had a sick feeling of total responsibility and total collapse. Suddenly I awakened. What a feeling of relief.

For people all over this city, that feeling of relief usually came on hearing Tom Binfords voice on the other line. His was a voice of experience, of reassurance, of conviction. Indianapolis is incalculably stronger for his vision of inclusion and diversity. And for the sense of excitement he brought to all he came in contact with. When asked about his greatest accomplishments, Tom Binfords answer was always, direct: Being able to do things that I enjoy doing and that I want to do.

Tom Binford did Indianapolis well.

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