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Indiana Gov. O'Bannon dies after stroke


Indiana Gov. Frank L. O'Bannon, a two-term Democrat with a folksy style who pushed for economic development and better schools, died yesterday in Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago five days after suffering a stroke.

Known as a humble Southern gentleman, Mr. O'Bannon, 73, will be remembered as a popular governor, gifted with the ability to empathize with the people who sent him to office.

"I have lost my governor and my friend," said Joe Kernan, who was sworn in later yesterday as the state's 48th governor. "So, too, has every Hoosier lost their governor and their friend," he said.

Mr. O'Bannon, who was in Chicago for a trade meeting, suffered the stroke Monday morning in his room at the Palmer House Hilton. He underwent emergency surgery and was showing encouraging signs of recovery as early as Wednesday.

Late Friday, shortly before midnight, the governor's condition began to worsen as swelling increased in his brain and his vital signs became unstable, said Wesley Yapor, a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Doctors worked through the night to stabilize his condition.

But following the wishes of the governor's living will, Indiana first lady Judy O'Bannon and the rest of the family decided against using further means of support. The governor died naturally at 11:33 a.m. in the hospital's neurointensive care unit, according to a statement from his office.

Flags in Indiana were lowered to half-staff.

Doctors said Mr. O'Bannon did not regain consciousness after his stroke and suffered several secondary strokes, as is common with his type of injuries, after being taken to the hospital.

The governor's corneas were being harvested last night for organ donation, Northwestern Memorial spokeswoman Kelly Sullivan said.

Earlier yesterday, Judy O'Bannon attended the swearing-in ceremony for Mr. Kernan, who called for today to be a "day of remembrance, a day of reflection, sorrow and joy for a life that was lived to the fullest in the service of the people of Indiana."

The state's lieutenant governor during Mr. O'Bannon's seven years in office, Kernan had been elevated to acting governor after Mr. O'Bannon's stroke.

Mr. Kernan stunned the state's political establishment in December when he said he would not run for governor in next year's election, and he reiterated last week that he did not expect to change his mind.

In Indiana, Bill Blomquist, an associate professor of politics at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis, said Mr. O'Bannon's career will serve to reinforce people's respect for public service and public servants.

"He was a humble man and someone who lived among his neighbors and fellow Hoosiers at the same time that he served them," Mr. Blomquist said. "People can and should recall what a worthwhile way to spend one's energy that is."

Although Mr. O'Bannon's popularity had slipped in his second term, admirers were drawn to his folksy style, which was reinforced by the house he lived in, a reconstructed barn on the outskirts of his family's hometown of Corydon.

Mr. 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 Indiana in 1957.

Following his father's footsteps into the state legislature, Mr. O'Bannon won election to the Indiana Senate in 1970. After flirting with a run for governor in 1988, he ran successfully as Evan Bayh's running mate and served as Mr. Bayh's lieutenant governor for two terms.

Mr. O'Bannon spent those eight years honing the art of consensus politics. In 1996, he was elected governor. The state limits a governor to two terms.

He took office during an economic boom. Indiana built a record $2 billion surplus, and Mr. O'Bannon cut taxes by $1.5 billion, put 500 additional police officers on the streets and increased funding for schools and universities.

Shortly into his second term, the economy soured. Indiana lost 120,000 jobs, and the state's tax revenues slowed to a trickle, forcing tax increases and cuts in social services and other agencies, although education was largely spared.

Staffers said his accomplishments included creating a community college system, extending health insurance to nearly half a million children, and moving people with disabilities away from restrictive institutions and into community settings.

Taking some conservative positions over the years, Mr. O'Bannon wanted to place a 7-foot-tall stone monument with the Ten Commandments on the state Capitol grounds until the courts said no. While a legislator, he was the prime sponsor of legislation that reimposed Indiana's death penalty in the 1970s.

A remembrance issued by Mr. O'Bannon's office noted that he delighted in taking photographs with a digital camera the size of a credit card, doing work on computers, reading nonfiction, hiking and watching birds.

In addition to his wife, Mr. O'Bannon is survived by two daughters, Polly Zoeller and Jennifer O'Bannon; a son, Jonathon O'Bannon; and five grandchildren.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Tribune staff writer Grace Aduroja and wire reports contributed to this article.

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