At 77, Judy O’Bannon is no slouch. Even though if anyone has earned the right to sit back and put her feet up, it is O’Bannon. But she’d rather kick up her heels – and that is, almost literally, what she continues to do as an elder stateswoman and community activist: traveling the state and the globe, giving speeches, asking questions and figuring out ways to solve global problems with local solutions.
During a recent conversation in her eclectic home, built in the 1920s in a style best described as “movie star stucco,” O’Bannon demonstrates yet again that she is not one to sit still. First, she offers a tour of her home, which she renovated not long after the death of her husband, former governor Frank O’Bannon, in September of 2003 – when, as she puts it, “in a minute everything changed.”
Having been inside the Governor’s Residence during the Frank and Judy era, I was struck by the contrasts: from stately, traditional furnishings and contemporary art by Indiana artists in the residence, to the vibrancy of her current home with its gemstone color scheme, Moldovan carpets rolled up in stacks, art by children in the VSA Indiana program (a favorite organization of hers), and a diverse collection of glassware and pottery verily bursting from the kitchen shelves.
One gets the sense that O’Bannon’s current home is as much an expression of her true self as the Governor’s Residence was during the seven years she was Indiana’s First Lady, when she offered it up as “the state’s living room,” hosting events for all manner of Indiana resident: from summer camps for young women incarcerated in the Indiana Girls School – “they just wanted somebody to think they weren’t awful” – to workshops on the environment.
Raised by community
It all started with World War II. O’Bannon was 5 years old, living in Downers Grove, Ill. – then a town of just 500 or so, now a busy suburb of Chicago – and like so many other American families far removed geographically from the battles and bombs, those back home wanted to do their part.
“The war effort was such a community involvement,” O’Bannon recalls. “I recently went back to the little town where we had our scrap pile, right down by the train station. … People threw things on those metal scrap piles, things of real value; not just things they didn’t need any more. They threw the iron fences from their old Victorian houses into those scrap heaps for the war effort. And my mother ran a doll hospital that refurbished dolls for servicemen’s kids.”
When O’Bannon was 10, the family moved to Lincoln, Neb., after her father was sent there to work by Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of AT&T. It was still wartime and her father’s charge was to start a factory for the war effort. “It was a wonderful next step from that little town because it was navigable by a kid on the trolley,” O’Bannon recalls.
But by the time her father’s factory was set up, just a few years later, the war was winding down. That’s when the family moved to Indianapolis, and she’s made Indiana her home ever since.
After she and Frank O’Bannon were introduced, during her senior year in college at Indiana University, she was set to go Germany on a scholarship exchange program, and then to Yale. But when Frank proposed, “I said, well, that’s too far. So I said, there’s this seminary in Louisville I know about … ” and that seminary was close to Corydon, Frank’s hometown. So she applied – and was accepted. She was the first woman to do so. “It was 100 years old and there were 400 men there. I wasn’t trying to do the crusade for women’s rights. I really wasn’t. I really just wanted to go study theology and get married to Frank O’Bannon.
“So I just went a semester and then I did what good women did. … I raised kids and ran the Girl Scouts and they later let me run the Sunday schools but I never could teach the adult class.” That, she learned, was for men only. But not one to sit idly by, she also ran a cable station, foreshadowing her later work in television.
When we spoke, O’Bannon had just returned from China and Tibet for her program Judy O’Bannon’s Foreign Exchange. Before that: Italy. “I figure I’ve got to go to rambunctious places while I still have that sort of umph,” she told me, laughing. But she’s more fascinated with what she calls “strange places,” places that aren’t on most people’s radar.
Moldova is one of those countries. “It’s the poorest country in Europe. Why am I fascinated? Do I just like bad times or what? But there’s so much I’ve learned from the people and the women … boy, what they’re been through, how they hang tight, what they’re doing.” So she keeps going back. “But in all of it, when I go somewhere else and come back, the thought is I’m not doing a travelogue at all; they’re message pieces.”
She always makes a connection to Indiana. Take Peru (the one in South America, not Indiana). After O’Bannon traveled there, she saw that it was opening up for tourism – but that had both positive and negative consequences. “How is tourism used in Indiana? What does it show the world about where we live? What is it doing to the environment if you bring a lot of people in here?”
O’Bannon recalls the days chairing the Hoosier Millennium and Bicentennial projects (she later took on the Indiana 2016 initiative). “So we traveled around the state in a motor home that had shrink-wrap on it,” she recalls, delivered tool boxes to communities, and asked them to address four major questions: “Where we are today as a community? What are we doing well, what are we not doing well? Where do we want to be at the Millennium, and how do we get there?”
For the bicentennial, “We were using that as a spark for communities to look ahead to the bicentennial and say, ‘This is where we want to be. How are we going to get there?’ ”
For 10 years O’Bannon chaired the state’s Main Street Program, through Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (now Indiana Landmarks). That work turned out to be more than a full-time job. “A lot of it was economic development, being a goodwill ambassador.”
Her television work addresses this, too. She continues to host and produce the WFYI program Communities Building Community, bringing attention to the many ways Indiana residents foster community life in the Hoosier state.
Most recently she’s taken up the cause of aging. “I find one of the questions you face is, when do you say, I’ve worked hard all my life, I’m just going to live and enjoy every moment of today; I’m going to quit using my energies battling anything that I don’t think is fun. And when are you going to say I’m just going to fight the conditions that make you just an old person with no hope?
“The only way I know how to do this aging is to reach outside of myself as much as I can and focus on things out there with greater purpose and mission than my own little wants and comforts.” O’Bannon writes about these and other issues in her column in the Corydon Democrat.
O’Bannon continues to be asked to speak all over the state – she averages half a dozen requests a day. And when people ask why she continues to go around giving speeches, her response? “I say, it is such a privilege to be invited into somebody else’s world on a day that they’re either solving a problem or celebrating something that happened or organizing to do some big thing, even if it’s cleaning up broken glass on an empty lot.”