Bill Hudnut and the great heart that built a city

 

It’s fitting, I suppose, that it was Bill Hudnut’s heart that gave out at the end.

He asked an awful lot of that heart of his. He gave so freely of it, wearing it not just on his sleeve, but on his face, in his smile, on his back, in his handshakes and as part of his hugs. He was a man who lived and loved large.

That meant he could be hurt, often and easily.

I have known many political leaders, but never one who was as sensitive to slights or who agonized as much over missteps as Mayor Bill did. He cared so much and he tried so hard to do the right thing – to help people – that it wounded him, right to his core, when they failed to understand what he was trying to do or when he did not measure up to his own high standards.

In some ways, it’s surprising he lasted as long and did as well as he did in politics. Most politicians develop hides of steel, protective skins to sheath and defend their tender places.

Bill Hudnut never could do that well.

He was what he was.

A man who was all heart.

He will be remembered, accurately, as the mayor who built the Indianapolis that thrives today. People will tell tales of how he brought the Colts to town, how he saved the Pacers, how he launched Circle Centre Mall and revitalized the downtown, how he shepherded us through the great blizzard of ’78, how he served as a voice of racial reconciliation, how he was everywhere, doing everything, as mayor from 1976 to 1992.

All of that is true and worthy of tribute.

But I’ll remember him in other ways.

In recent times, I saw him most often in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where some of my wife’s family lives and where he and his family have had property for more than 80 years. He and his wife of more than 25 years, Beverly, and my wife and I would get together for lunch or dinner. We’d laugh and tell stories.

As mayor of Indianapolis, Bill had a deserved reputation as a man of vision, one who saw the big picture. He was the leader who saw possibilities others missed and could transform a dream into a reality as tangible as the bricks in a building or the cement in a street.

In the Adirondacks, he could be and was something and someone else, a man who could enjoy small and simple pleasures. He loved walking along a dirt road while holding Bev’s hand, telling his friends stories about his son Chris’s basketball games, or just soaking up the mountain air and the smell of the pine trees.

The last time we got together out there, he and Bev sat on a bench overlooking a small mountain lake near their home. He had his arm draped over his wife’s shoulders as he gazed out at the water.

And he said in a soft voice, straight from that great heart of his:

“It’s beautiful here when the sun sets.”

Bill Hudnut died Saturday night. He was 84.

In a valediction that he penned himself before his death, Bill said he wanted his epitaph to be: “He built well and he cared about people.”

And so it shall be.

In the same valedictory, Bill, all heart to the end, forbade mourning at his passing. He urged us instead to rejoice in life, in pleasures large and small, in the opportunities for service and joy that each new day brings.

I’m doing my best to honor his wishes.

If I see Bill again, I will tell him the tears that were in my eyes as I wrote this were tears of joy.

It will be true.

Mostly.

And that great heart of Bill Hudnut’s will forgive me for not telling the complete truth.

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