‘Seriousness of purpose’ left quite an impression

Many young people can’t remember the time when Robert N. Stewart was Columbus’ mayor, but I knew little else during the first half of my journalism career.

After winning the election in 1983, Stewart succeeded Nancy Ann Brown, who had established a reputation of being approachable. That left some apprehension for those who knew Stewart only as a Meshberger Stone executive.

Some people worried that as the former Indiana GOP chairman, the new mayor might bring state-level partisan politics to Columbus City Hall. Others speculated whether “good old boy” patronage might dominate his administration.

My own impression after meeting the towering new mayor as a 25-year-old neophyte reporter was that Stewart was a bit, well, cold. Within a few months, I quickly discovered my perception was way off the mark. What I mistook as coldness was, in reality, an intense seriousness of purpose.

As time went on, it became evident that Stewart had little interest in partisanship, ego or personal gain. As far as I could tell while covering his administration, his sole motivation for becoming mayor was genuine concern for the future of his beloved hometown.

There was a reason for concern. Cummins suffered from wild swings in the North American heavy-duty truck industry. Those fluctuations in domestic diesel engine sales caused all-too-frequent layoffs and constant economic uncertainty in Bartholomew County.

In order to make Columbus less reliant on diesel engine sales, the Stewart administration placed economic development on the front-burner. From the beginning, Stewart saw the presence of Interstate 65 as a key asset in attracting new businesses to Bartholomew County. However, it took creativity and imagination to make I-65 work in the city’s favor.

At the northern interchange, U.S. 31 was connected to Edinburgh and Taylorsville, miles from the Columbus city limits. To the south, retail and residential development was well underway at the State Road 46 interchange. While neither seemed compatible for industrial development, the Stewart administration pulled a rabbit out of its hat.

The city annexed State Road 11 from Garden City past Walesboro, as well as County Road 450S from the highway to the Walesboro-Ogilville interchange. Suddenly, hundreds of undeveloped acres in Columbus that was adjacent to the interstate became available for an industrial park. What eventually emerged was the Woodside Industrial Park, which offered several desirable amenities to corporations examining potential industrial expansion sites.

Both Stewart and Brooke Tuttle, a former president of the Columbus Economic Development Board, understood it was corporations in countries such as Japan and Germany that were seeking American expansion during the 1980s.

“He and Brooke Tuttle … made a highly effective team,” Sherry Stark once told me. Stark, a former president of the Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, served as the city’s director of community development during Stewart’s tenure.

Before embarking on numerous trips to Europe and Asia, both Stewart and Tuttle always did their homework. Stewart understood not only each company they were courting but the customs and social mores of the various cultures.

Columbus was in a highly competitive race to attract new industries. Fortunately, the political connections Stewart established as state GOP chairman, as well as those of others such as former Indiana Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton, of Columbus, assured support and financial backing from the statehouse. The connections were useful in cutting through bureaucratic delays on the state level, which gave Columbus a competitive advantage over many other Midwest cities in attracting new companies.

And then, there was the not-insignificant matter of the mayor’s 6-foot-5 frame and his demeanor. While European executives seemed to recognize and respect their fellow businessman’s seriousness of purpose immediately, Tuttle once said Stewart’s gentle giant persona exuded an aura of both strength and authority.

“(Stewart’s) physical stature should never be dismissed as a factor in our success, especially in Asia,” Tuttle said before his death in 2011.

This combination of assets and advantages was so effective that it brought in a billion dollars of new investment into Bartholomew County.

Stewart also was capable of being quite funny. His often self-deprecating sense of humor brought a sense of levity to tense situations when it was needed the most.

While my first impression of Stewart was wrong, he left quite a lasting one.

Republic reporter Mark Webber worked as news director of a local radio station during Stewart’s administration. He can be reached at 379-5633 or mwebber@therepublic.com.

Mark Webber is a reporter at The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5633 or mwebber@therepublic.com.