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Column: Devoted Hoosier senator leaves office as leader

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INDIANAPOLIS — Just after Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., lost the primary election that brings to an end his illustrious political career, he called together all the people who had worked for him.

All were devastated. Many were in tears.

It had to have been a hard moment for Lugar. He’d spent more than half his life in public service. He had achieved great things — brought peace to troubled lands, made the world safer through nuclear disarmament, fostered one generation of Hoosier leadership after another — only to be rejected by the members of his own party at the polls.

He could have been forgiven for showing some bitterness. At the very least, he could have taken some time to lick his wounds.

But that’s not Dick Lugar.

His people needed reassurance. They needed guidance. They needed leadership.

So he led.

Lugar thanked those who had worked on his staff and his campaigns for their service to their country. And he thanked them for their devotion to him personally.

The important thing, he said, was not to look back obsessively but to move forward. He wanted to help them all with their next steps.

He focused the conversation on them and their needs. Not his.

Vintage Lugar.

In the years to come, when we talk about Richard Lugar’s life and career, it will be tempting to discuss only the big things. He is, after all, a man who deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. He is the leader who negotiated a successful and peaceful transfer of power in the Philippines when that country was on the edge of chaos. He was the man who reached across the aisle to form a partnership with Democrat Sam Nunn that produced dramatic reductions in nuclear stockpiles. And he created not one but two leadership training series — one for women and another for young people.

All of that, of course, is worth noting and celebrating.

But I think I will remember first the smaller, more human gestures — grace notes, if you will — that marked Lugar’s leadership.

I recall now a day in 1994 when Lugar was running for his fourth term in the U.S. Senate. He made a stop at Avon High School, where he addressed a student assembly and then went for a run with the school cross-country team.

His talk was, again, vintage Lugar, a complex analysis of foreign policy challenges around the globe that featured one dense paragraph stacked on top of another with nary a sound bite or memorable phrase to be found anywhere in the pile. At the time, I thought he’d misread his audience by giving a talk that seemed more suitable to a seminar of professional diplomats than an auditorium full of high school students just waiting for the bell to ring.

Later, I realized that I’d missed Lugar’s larger point. He was demonstrating to those students that the world was a complicated place and that paying attention to detail and nuance mattered.

After the talk, we all went to the boys locker room to change for the run with the cross-country team. As Lugar and his male staff members slipped into their running shorts, they bantered back and forth affectionately. I was struck by how precisely Lugar balanced familiarity with respect among those who worked for him.

As we ran, the members of the high school cross-country team darted far ahead and then looped back to share a few words with Lugar, who plodded along. He was in his early 60s at the time. He answered their questions patiently without breaking his slow but steady stride.

His message again was a subtle one. Life’s a marathon, he seemed to be saying, and the trick is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The amazing thing about that day, and a lot of days Lugar spent while he was in the Senate, is that it had nothing to do with politics. There were no votes to be found for him among high school students. He wasn’t at that school as a politician. He was there as a leader.

And that is how he leaves office — as a leader.

As he leaves, we should close the circle and show that we learned his leadership lessons.

We should thank Richard Lugar for his service to our country and for his devotion to us.

And we should wish him well on his next steps in the marathon.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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