A lifetime of public service: Jackson retires after career encompassing the city and county

Judy Johns Jackson at her desk on her last day of work at the Sheriff’s department, Thursday, December 29, 2022. Carla Clark | For The Republic

A woman who hoped to be Columbus’ mayor but instead served Columbus and Bartholomew County behind the scenes her entire life is stepping away from public service.

Judy Jackson, a Hope native and longtime Columbus resident, served in all levels of governing — municipal, county, state and federal — over a half century.

Jackson said she has enjoyed meeting with people, finding out what they needed or were interested in, and working with others to achieve common goals.

Jackson got her first taste of governing working as the secretary to former Columbus mayor, Max Andress. She worked alongside him from 1972 to 1979, his entire eight years in office.

Her next assignment was in federal government, as a case worker for U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, helping constituents with matters such as Social Security and Veterans Affairs, based in the congressman’s Columbus office but also traveling with him throughout the 9th district.

With an insider’s knowledge of the Columbus mayor’s office and with the encouragement of several local Democrats, 36-year-old Jackson mounted her first campaign for office, challenging incumbent Mayor Nancy Ann Brown in the 1983 primary.

“There were people in the Bartholomew County Democratic Party that thought Nancy Ann might not be successful in obtaining a second term,” Jackson said. “I threw my hat in the ring and lost.”

But so did Brown, falling in the general election to the late Bob Stewart, a Republican who went on to serve three terms as Columbus’ mayor.

It would be Jackson’s only attempt to win elected office, but the loss did not sour her taste for public service.

After a stint as director of Indiana Business College in Columbus, Jackson got a chance to return to city government in the administration of newly elected Mayor Fred Armstrong. Starting in 1996, Jackson served as executive director of community development throughout Armstrong’s four terms as mayor.

“She did a great job for people who needed help — with their roof, their furnaces, even down to (providing) a washer or dryer that would improve their life,” Armstrong said. “She was able to come up with programs, some with federal funds, that were top notch and touched a lot of people’s lives.”

For example, Jackson created neighborhood landscaping contests as part of beautification efforts, and her work became a jumping-off point for a high-profile city project.

The Columbus in Bloom Committee, launched in 2006, helped the city win the America in Bloom national contest in its first try. The committee worked to improve the city’s image to tourists and potential visitors, which included the placing of large, colorful flowerpots downtown along Washington Street.

Armstrong called Jackson a detail person with a matter-of-fact approach to the city’s business.

“It has to be done right or we were not going to do it,” Armstrong said when describing Jackson’s style, ranking her among the best community development directors in the city’s history.

With her reputation spreading beyond Bartholomew County, Jackson was appointed by Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh to serve two terms on the Indiana Women’s Commission and by Gov. Frank O’Bannon to serve a third term.

Jackson also served on the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission and Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications during the Bayh administration.

For her service to the state, Jackson was awarded the Sagamore of the Wabash award — Indiana’s highest honor, recognizing achievement or civic contributions — by Gov. Joe Kernan in 2005.

At the end of Armstrong’s term in 2011, Jackson decided to retire at age 65.

But opportunity in public service knocked once again four years later when Matt Myers, a former Columbus police officer and a family friend, won the election as Bartholomew County sheriff. Myers asked Jackson to manage the sheriff’s department’s office of public information, which she did in a part-time capacity throughout his eight years in office — until she retired for a second time in December 2022.

The assignment allowed Jackson to come full circle at the sheriff’s department.

When her father, the late J. Walter Johns, was appointed chief deputy by Sheriff Earl Hogan in 1950, 4-year-old Judy and her family moved into residential quarters of the Bartholomew County Jail. They lived at the jail through Hogan’s eight years in office and during the four years Johns served as sheriff, when her mother, Marjorie, was the jail matron.

As matron, Marjorie Johns was in charge of all of the female and juvenile inmates and cooked for all of the inmates.

“We all ate the same things,” Jackson said.

Among her memories of growing up at the jail, Jackson recalled when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy came to Columbus on April 29, 1960 with an entourage of supporters. They included actor Jeff Chandler and Ethel Kennedy, wife of the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, who sat around her family’s kitchen table inside the jail.

She was 13 years old and a 9th grade student at Columbus Junior High at the time, and both Chandler and Mrs. Kennedy signed her school yearbook.

Judy got to see the Massachusetts senator and presidential aspirant from a distance with her father when John Kennedy appeared for a political rally at the local Indiana National Guard Armory during his visit. But no one got a chance to hear the charismatic speaker that day, as a severe throat infection forced Kennedy to keep quiet, while an aide delivered his prepared remarks.

Jackson’s mementos include a photo of her mother with Sen. Kennedy taken at Bakalar Air Force Base, now Columbus Municipal Airport.

“I’ve been around politics for a long time,” Jackson said. “I met some interesting people — good people,” Jackson said.

And she made an impression.

“She’s the most loyal person I’ve ever met,” Myers said. “She’s served the community outstandingly.”

Having recently moved from the west side of Columbus to the city’s east side, Jackson said retirement will provide time for her to get settled into her new home.

She called the downsizing “a big job.”

When she’s not sorting through boxes of personal items, Jackson continues to keep in touch with old friends and colleagues.

Once a month, Jackson has lunch with “14 girls I graduated with from high school,” members of the Columbus High Class of 1964.

“We have a great time,” she said.

And every two weeks, Jackson gets together for breakfast with a handful of other members of former Mayor Armstrong’s leadership team, a tradition that began in 2011, as they left office.

“We really had a good group of people,” Armstrong said. “They are people who cared and enjoyed what they did, and they did a lot for the community.”