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Munster banker ran late Birch Bayh's campaigns: 'He was able to move Indiana and the country forward'

Peoples Bank Chairman David Bochnowksi, left, with his wife Ann Bochnowski and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, who died earlier this month at age 91. David Bochnowski worked for Bayh for 10 years and managed two of his campaigns.

A longtime Munster banking executive worked for the legendary, late Sen. Birch Bayh for a decade, managing two of the Indiana senator's campaigns.

Peoples Bank Chairman David Bochnowski said Bayh, who died earlier this month at 91, made many major contributions to Northwest Indiana and the county. Bochnowski remembered him as a man who risked his life by rushing into the wreckage of a crashed plane with a burning fuselage to rescue fellow Sen. Edward Kennedy, and as an empathetic listener who had a natural flair for politics and who could remember the name of every person he met in a room packed with 200 people.

“He’s the most unforgettable person I ever met,” Bochnowski said.

The longtime chief executive officer of the Munster-based community bank, Bochnowski worked with Bayh when the senator crafted the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, regarding presidential succession, and the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18 nationwide. Bayh was described as “one of the most important Americans of the 20th century” by tennis champion Billie Jean King for his Title IX civil law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender in education and athletics. Bochnowski said Marvella Bayh inspired Birch Bayh to champion the law that provided women equal opportunity at universities and in sports.

“The backstory on Title IX, which really changed our relationship with women’s sports, is that one woman asked one question,” Bochnowski said. “He met Marvella Bayh at a Future Farmers of America public speaking competition. She won and he finished second. They got married and went to his farm in Terre Haute. They were watching basketball on television and she asked him why it was always men’s basketball on television, and why women never played basketball on television.”

Bayh didn’t know the answer. So he broached it with his staff at his congressional office on the weekend of the NCAA men’s championship.

“At the time, it was all smart people working there, as it was at most Senate offices and Congressional offices,” Bochnowski said. “There was no easy why. Marvella got to the heart of the matter.”

Modern-day founding father

U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, described Bayh as a "modern-day founding father" for the substantial constitutional changes he championed.

“He amended the Constitution more than anyone in U.S. history, with the exception of James Madison,” Bochnowski said. “And his Equal Rights Amendment also did provide equal rights in many areas even if it hasn’t completely moved forward.”

Bochnowski started working for Bayh as an intern in 1965, when he was a student at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He ended up with a typing desk right by the senator’s office.

“When I first met him, he said, 'Hi, I’m Birch Bayh,' and stuck out his hand,” Bochnowski said. “He didn’t say, 'Hi, I’m Senator Bayh.' He was such an open guy. It didn’t make any difference to him that he was a senator. He was an ordinary guy, a welcoming guy.”

Bayh often worked to help Northwest Indiana, such as to get the Cline Avenue highway extended to the steel mills, Bochnowski said. He met with the head of public relations at Inland Steel about how it hoped to move workers into the mill quickly and get the product out just as fast, but was obstructed by all the trains that passed by.

The senator saw the problem and helped get the Cline Avenue bridge built to get steelworkers to and from the steel mills more easily.

“He worked with large employers, and labor wanted it too,” Bochnowski said. “They wanted to get to and from work faster. He got directly involved in projects that helped Northwest Indiana and made a huge difference in the community.”

In Merrillville, Bayh helped get a bridge built to improve the traffic south of the Southlake Mall, and he put an Amtrak stop in Dyer.

“The hope was that it eventually could become a rail line between Northwest Indiana and Chicago,” Bochnowski said. “They thought it could be a regular route, but the Amtrak does not move often enough to be a true commuter trail. Now they’re making a push to try to get that done, by extending the South Shore Line down to Munster and beyond.”

Watching history being made

Bayh got the 25th Amendment passed after President John Kennedy died and Vice President Lyndon Johnson succeeded him. There was then no mechanism for naming the next vice president until the next election.

“A lot of us were college kids watching history being made,” Bochnowski said.

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Bayh pressed for the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age after taking a trip to Vietnam right before the infamous Tet Offensive.

“If soldiers were old enough to fight, they should be old enough to vote,” Bochnowski said. “They were fighting or serving as nurses, he saw it as an example of why they needed a voice in government.”

Bayh drew the ire of the National Rifle Association by working to ban imports of "Saturday Night Special" handguns, at the behest of police chiefs across the country.

After winning three narrow elections as a liberal Democrat in red state Indiana, Bayh lost in 1980 when Ronald Reagan led Republicans to a landslide victory.

His son Evan Bayh went on to have more electoral success, winning races as governor and senator with more than 60 percent approval.

But Birch Bayh wielded power that indelibly shaped the country.

“He was the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and got the highest civilian honor from the Central Intelligence Agency,” Bochnowski said. “He had a lot of awards on display in his office, some that were very visible and some that were just recognized by the intelligence community and covert operations. He had influence, a lot of influence that he used to make things happen in Northwest Indiana and in terms of policy.”

Bayh was so effective at getting legislation passed because he was willing to reach across the aisle and look at all sides of an issue, Bochnowski said.

“He truly wanted to help,” Bochnowski said. “He put the needs of the local community first. He had a tireless love of Indiana and wanted to serve the people of Indiana.”

A man of the people, Bayh played alongside his staff in touch football and baseball in Congressional competitions on the National Mall, having played shortstop for Purdue University while a student.

“He was really good,” Bochnowksi said. “He was a great infielder and had a really good batting eye.”

His touch football team even beat Robert Kennedy’s for the Congressional championship.

Toward a more perfect union

“He was very outgoing and never flustered,” Bochnowski said. “He was never upset about anything. He was always warm and open and genuine with an incredible recall. He would talk to you as if you were the only person in the room.”

Some rooms would erupt into standing ovations when Bayh walked in. He reached people everywhere he went, teaching Europeans how to grow tomatoes during his military service after World War II.

“He could connect with everybody, but he never told people what they wanted to hear,” Bochnowski said. “He always told people what he thought was the right thing. He was so successful because he was always truthful. He was able to move Indiana and the country forward.”

Bayh always was a good listener who tried to get information before figuring out how to address problems, which influenced Bochnowki’s own career as a bank executive.

“Other people might have better ideas than you have,” he said. “It’s good to explore all the avenues to explore the problems. My father and grandfather had a big influence on me, but Bayh helped inspire many of the things I was able to accomplish. He was someone who humbly served his country, did the best he could, treated others fairly and had a role in civil rights.”

Bayh worked on pioneering issues like ethanol with Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and attempted to dismantle the electoral college.

“He had hearings that would be prescient today,” Bochnowski said. “You’ve had two cases in recent history where the winner of the popular vote did not win the electoral college, which had only happened once before in history. He believed in the direct election of presidents after hearing expert testimony, and always believed the United States was moving toward a more perfect union.”

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.