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Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon dies

Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon and his wife, Judy, are shown in a file photo from Dec. 27, 2000, in front of their home in Corydon, Ind. The first lady flew to Chicago Monday, Sept. 8, 2003, with daughter Jennifer to be at her husband's side at Northwestern
Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon and his wife, Judy, are shown in a file photo from Dec. 27, 2000, in front of their home in Corydon, Ind. The first lady flew to Chicago Monday, Sept. 8, 2003, with daughter Jennifer to be at her husband's side at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, after he underwent surgery for a massive stroke.
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Frank O'Bannon, who parlayed down-home southern Indiana charm and consensus-building ability into mixed success as his state's governor since 1997, died Saturday, five days after suffering a stroke. He was 73.

O'Bannon, who fell ill Monday while attending a conference in Chicago, died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, press secretary Mary Dieter said.

O'Bannon died at 11:33 a.m., a statement from his press office said.

"The governor experienced a drop in both blood pressure and heart rate. Based on the governor's living will, First Lady Judy O'Bannon and the family decided to use no further means of support and care and the governor died naturally," the statement said.

Acting Gov. Joe Kernan was likely to be sworn in as governor later Saturday, Dieter said. He had been serving as official acting governor since Wednesday.

Judy O'Bannon, who had been at the governor's bedside since Monday, returned to Indianapolis in a state police aircraft. She arrived at the Statehouse shortly before Kernan was to be sworn in, hugged a well-wisher and said, "He was a tough old guy."

The last governor to die in office was Missouri's Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane crash in October 2000 while campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

O'Bannon's tenure began brightly with the economic boom of the late 1990s. Indiana built a record $2 billion surplus, and O'Bannon cut taxes by $1.5 billion, put 500 more police officers on the streets, and won increasing funding for schools and universities. The moderate Democrat coasted to re-election in 2000 over former U.S. Rep. David McIntosh.

Shortly into his second term, the economic good times soured into a recession. Indiana lost 120,000 jobs, and tax revenues flowing into state coffers slowed to a trickle, forcing tax increases and cuts in social services and other agencies while largely sparing education.

Republicans blamed O'Bannon for only recently focusing on economic development.

In an April 2002 interview, O'Bannon acknowledged the state's worst fiscal crunch in two decades would help shape his legacy.

"It will certainly be a part of it. But I don't even think of my legacy. I just look at things I can get done," O'Bannon said.

His critics also accused O'Bannon of running a loose ship as governor. They pointed to the embezzlement from a public retirement fund, a slow response by his environmental agency to a big fish kill, and problems at two state centers for the developmentally disabled.

Criticism of O'Bannon rarely turned personal, though. That reflected his folksy image — his home is a reconstructed barn on the outskirts of the family hometown of Corydon — and the goodwill he had built during 18 years in the Indiana Senate and eight as lieutenant governor.

"Frank O'Bannon was a dedicated public servant and a good and decent man," President Bush said in a statement. "He has served the people of his state with integrity and devotion."

State Rep. Brian Bosma, the Indiana House minority leader, clashed with O'Bannon on policy issues, but knew the governor's positions were deeply held.

"He has always done what he has felt was in the best interest of our state. I would never question his integrity or his service or his dedication," said Bosma.

Sen. Evan Bayh, who was governor when O'Bannon was lieutenant governor, hailed him after he fell ill Monday as "a good man and one of the most decent public servants I've ever had the honor of working with."

O'Bannon won his first term as governor in 1996, narrowly defeating Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who had advocated bold moves such as school choice and privatization of government services.

Indiana residents traditionally have embraced change only when it honors the past, historian James Madison has written. "When forced to change, they were always able to blend the old with the new."

"I think O'Bannon is a wonderful combination of past, present and future," Madison, a historian at Indiana University, said in 1996.

O'Bannon took positions that many of his Democratic counterparts in other states might deem too conservative. He wanted to place a 7-foot stone monument with the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state Capitol until the courts said no.

While a legislator, he had been the prime sponsor of the legislation that reimposed Indiana's death penalty in the 1970s. As governor, O'Bannon allowed seven executions to occur without delay but recently granted a 60-day reprieve in one case to allow for DNA testing.

O'Bannon had succeeded his father in the state Senate in 1970 and held the seat until becoming lieutenant governor. He had actually sought the governor's seat in 1987, but after Bayh entered the race, O'Bannon became the much younger man's running mate. The pair won election that year and then won a second term in 1991.

As lieutenant governor, O'Bannon quietly built ties with farmers, business people and party leaders in preparation for his own gubernatorial run. He was not opposed when he sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1996.

"Frank O'Bannon is the ultimate public servant, the kind of public servant we should all strive to be," said Vi Simpson, who served with him in the Indiana Senate. "He could have gone down many roads, and he chose a lifetime of devotion and dedication to the people of this state."

O'Bannon received a bachelor's degree in government from Indiana University in 1952. He served two years in the Air Force and then earned his law degree from IU in 1957.

That same year he married Judy Asmus, whom he had met on a blind date in college. They returned to Corydon, where he started a law practice and spent time at the family-owned newspaper, the Corydon Democrat. Even as governor, he remained chairman of the O'Bannon Publishing Co., which publishes weekly newspapers in Harrison and Crawford counties.

The O'Bannons have three children, Polly, Jennifer and Jonathon, and five grandchildren.