A life of public service: Jackson retires after a career spanning city and county

A woman who hoped to be mayor of Columbus, but instead served Columbus and Bartholomew County behind the scenes her entire life, is walking away from public office.

Judy Jackson, a Hope native and longtime Columbus resident, has served at all levels of government — municipal, county, state and federal — for half a century.

Jackson said she enjoys meeting people, finding out what they need or are interested in, and working with others to achieve common goals.

Jackson got his first taste of governance as secretary to former Columbus mayor Max Andress. She worked alongside him from 1972 to 1979, his eight full years in power.

Her next assignment was in the federal government, as a social worker for U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton, assisting voters with areas such as Social Security and Veterans Affairs, based in the congressman’s office in Columbus, but also traveling with him in the 9th district.

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

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

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

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

After a stint as principal of the Indiana Business College in Columbus, Jackson had a chance to return to city government in the administration of newly elected Mayor Fred Armstrong. Beginning 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 make their lives better,” Armstrong said. “She was able to deliver programs, some with federal funds, that were top notch and touched the lives of many people.”

For example, Jackson created neighborhood landscaping competitions as part of beautification efforts, and his work became a starting point for a large-scale urban project.

The Columbus in Bloom committee, launched in 2006, helped the city win the nationwide America in Bloom contest on its first attempt. The committee worked to improve the city’s image to tourists and potential visitors, including placing large, colorful flowerpots downtown along Washington Street.

Armstrong called Jackson a detailed person with a pragmatic approach to city affairs.

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

Her reputation extending beyond Bartholomew County, Jackson was nominated by Indiana Governor Evan Bayh to serve two terms on the Indiana Women’s Commission and by Governor Frank O’Bannon for a third. mandate.

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

For his service to the state, Jackson received the Sagamore of the Wabash Award—Indiana’s highest honor, recognizing civic achievement or contribution—from Governor Joe Kernan in 2005.

When Armstrong’s term ended in 2011, Jackson decided to retire at age 65.

But opportunity in public office struck again four years later when Matt Myers, a former Columbus police officer and family friend, won election as Bartholomew County sheriff. Myers asked Jackson to manage the Sheriff’s Department’s Public Information Office, which she did on a part-time basis throughout her eight years in office – until her second retirement in December 2022.

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

When her father, the late J. Walter Johns, was appointed Deputy Chief by Sheriff Earl Hogan in 1950, 4-year-old Judy and her family moved into living quarters at the Bartholomew County Jail. They lived at the prison during Hogan’s eight years in office and during Johns’ four years as sheriff, when his mother, Marjorie, was the prison matron.

As matron, Marjorie Johns was responsible for all inmates and juveniles and cooked for all inmates.

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

Among his memories of growing up in prison, Jackson recalled when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy came to Columbus on April 29, 1960, with an entourage of supporters. Among them were actor Jeff Chandler and Ethel Kennedy, wife of the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, seated around her family’s kitchen table inside the prison.

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

Judy was able to see the Massachusetts senator and presidential hopeful 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 shut up, while an aide delivered his prepared remarks.

Jackson’s memorabilia includes a photo of his mother with Senator Kennedy taken at Bakalar Air Force Base, now Columbus Municipal Airport.

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

And she made an impression.

“He’s the most loyal person I’ve ever met,” Myers said. “She has served the community in an exceptional way.”

Having recently moved from the west side of Columbus to the east side of the city, Jackson said retirement would allow him time to settle into his 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 from high school with,” members of the Columbus High Class of 1964.

“We’re having a great time,” she said.

And every two weeks, Jackson meets 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 had a really good group of people,” Armstrong said. “These are people who cared and enjoyed what they were doing, and they did a lot for the community.”

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