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Column: After 12 years of service ... transformation deserves recognition

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Bob Stewart, shown above at the dedication of the Hellen Ochs bird sanctuary in 2007, served three terms as mayor of Columbus during which the city underwent a major transformation.
Bob Stewart, shown above at the dedication of the Hellen Ochs bird sanctuary in 2007, served three terms as mayor of Columbus during which the city underwent a major transformation. FILE PHOTO

Bob Stewart stopped being mayor of Columbus just more than 17 years ago. A good portion of the senior classes at Columbus North and East high schools, along with all those in the classes below them, have lived their entire lives when someone other than the Bartholomew County native sat in the mayor’s office.

A lot has taken place in the 17 years since he left office. On the other hand, a lot took place when he was there.

Stewart was mayor of Columbus for 12 years — three terms — and in that time the city underwent a transformation, both in appearance and attitude.

Other mayors also had achievements, big ones. The long-awaited rebirth of the downtown occurred under Fred Armstrong (Stewart’s successor). Some of his predecessors certainly can lay claim to transformational administrations, such as the coming-of-age term of Bob Stevenson (1948-’51), when so many of the institutional processes in place today (planning, wastewater management, the annexation of East Columbus) were adopted after intense and contentious debates.

But when taking into account what transpired between the end of 1985 and the beginning of 1998 — economic development, the public-private partnerships, diversity, Streetscape, the Front Door project, Ethnic Expo — it can be said that the city of Columbus set itself apart from so many other communities around the country.

Stewart left office on good terms. He was feted at a number of celebratory gatherings. The arts community established a scholarship in his and his wife Barbara’s name. The Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce presented him with the Community Service Award. The Indiana Association of Cities and Towns gave him the Russell G. Lloyd Distinguished Service award, the highest honor bestowed upon a government official in the state.

But that was 17 years ago. Memories fade. New people move into the community and don’t always have time to study its history. People who were very important at one time can be forgotten in another.

Joe Swope, another Bartholomew County native with long-standing family ties to Columbus, believes it’s important there be something to make current and future residents aware of Stewart’s role in fashioning the city they call home. He wants something to bear the name Robert N. Stewart.

“I just think the city needs something to recognize what he (Stewart) did,” Joe said. “I think it’s even more important to do it while he’s alive and can appreciate the gesture rather than to wait until after he’s gone.”

Joe’s initial thinking was that a city street be named in the former mayor’s honor, but that is no easy matter.

Renaming an existing street would be a laborious undertaking, not to mention contentious. The U.S. Postal Service could get involved if there were residents or businesses on the street who would have to change their mailing addresses.

The Columbus Aviation Commission has a long tradition of naming streets in the airport complex after local achievers, but that’s dependent on new streets being developed.

Current Mayor Kristen Brown is on board with the idea of recognizing the former mayor and is looking into possible naming opportunities. One model might be the Cal Brand meeting room on the main floor of City Hall, which was named for the late community activist and businessman.

Whatever is chosen is, of course, important, but what is even more important is that something, indeed, be done so that the contributions of Bob Stewart be recognized by this and future generations.

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