INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Long before he served with distinction in the U.S. Senate, sought to disarm the nuclear stockpile of the Soviet Union, counseled presidents and championed American farmers, Richard Lugar was a Shortridge High School student who grew up to serve on the IPS Board of School Commissioners, remade city/county government and became “The father of modern Indianapolis,” according to the historian who has studied the legendary mayor’s career.
“His vision, his drive, his ambition, fundamentally reshaped the city,” said Dr. Ted Franz, curator of the University of Indianapolis Mayoral Archives.
During a wreath laying ceremony on the appropriately named Richard G. Lugar Plaza outside the City County Building from where then-Mayor Lugar once led the city, the man who now sits in the corner officer on the 25th floor office said he hopes to follow his mayoral mentor’s example.
“Senator Lugar believed that it was only by uniting to solve tough issues, divided perhaps in thought but united in a common purpose for a common effort,” said Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett who recalled Lugar’s last visit to the city to witness the plaza’s dedication, “because that day our community was reminded that vision and leadership and a deep love of this place we call home…that can be enough to spark the kind of change that kick starts a city’s greatest years.”
Lugar began his public life with election to the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners in 1964.
“He worked with people of different backgrounds in order to do some very basic things,” said Frantz, “like get latchkey children breakfast before school. That was something you would think would be completely uncontroversial but city leaders at the time said, ‘No that’s federal money, we don’t want to touch it.”
After Lugar led the way in desegregating Indianapolis public schools, he was elected mayor for the first of two terms and set about unifying city and county government.
“When he took over as mayor in 1967 you could see the divisions even within the building,” said Frantz as he stood on Lugar Plaza outside the CCB. “Even being in the same place, county entities and city entities weren’t working together. UNIGOV helped to streamline a lot of those things so that government could work more efficiently and you had a stronger mayor advocating for Indianapolis.”
Lugar used that advocate’s role to remake downtown Indianapolis and attract investment.
His greatest feat may have been the construction of Market Square Arena, eventual home to the Indiana Pacers, professional hockey and Elvis Presley’s final show and an excuse for suburban sports fans and concertgoers to visit downtown after dark.
“On a morning, I remember the conversation, he made the decision to build Market Square Arena and we did it spanning Market Street,” recalled Pacers Vice Chairman Jim Morris who said it's unlikely the team would have remained in Indianapolis without the downtown arena. “The building of Market Square it made it possible to have much larger attendance and that led to the Simons buying it, saving it for the city, and made Indianapolis a big league city.”
Morris, who worked with then-Senator Lugar on international food issues as Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme 15 years ago, said it was the former mayor’s memory as a stringer for the Indianapolis Star covering high school basketball at Shortridge High that drove him to bring the state’s boys high school basketball championships back to the city after the games were moved to bigger venues in West Lafayette and Bloomington in the 1960s.
“It killed him to think that the high school boys basketball tournament would no longer be played in the state capitol. Now he loved the Pacers. Never missed a Pacers game when he could. I went to dozens of games with him. But he wanted to have a great place for the high school basketball tournament.”
MSA opened in 1974, near the end of Lugar’s eight years in office.
“It was an affirmation of the importance of major league sports but also a facility of great entertainment, great conventions, community gatherings,” said Morris.
Mayor Hogsett took note of the Lugar family members in attendance at the wreath laying ceremony.
“And we pray that Richard Lugar’s legacy may live on today in the resolve of public leaders of all levels of government, leaders who embrace both the challenge and the awe inspiring potential of the values he fought for: unity, patriotism, integrity.”