MacAllister awarded for service to community

November 17, 2008
P.E. MacAllister's 90th birthday party was perfectly in keeping with the rest of his life. Instead of settling for a piece of cake and making an early evening of it, he spent last Aug. 30 at Union Station celebrating with 400 of his closest friends.

And shortly thereafter, he took a two-week European trip to visit Napoleon's most famous battlefields.

"I'm sort of a Napoleon nut," said the chairman of locally based MacAllister Machinery Co. "I've studied him for a long time and thought that would be interesting."

He's studied a lot of things over the years, including the Old Testament, Greek and Roman history, and the Florentine Renaissance. But it's easy to see why France's greatest military genius strikes such a chord with one of Indianapolis' most prominent businesspeople, political leaders and philanthropists.

Napoleon was a reformer who rationalized France's legal system, modernized its roads, and streamlined its schools. MacAllister followed the same path, though on a smaller scale (and with no shooting). His "battlefield" was the decades-long transformation of Indianapolis from a dreary Naptown into a culturally vibrant Midwestern capital.

Over the years, he served as president of the Capital Improvement Board (overseeing construction of both the Indiana Convention Center and the Hoosier Dome), helped run cultural organizations ranging from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to the Indianapolis Opera to the President's Advisory Committee on the Arts, and served as a scion of Indiana's Republican Party. All the while running his own multimillion-dollar company.

"He's a man for all seasons — kind of a Renaissance person," said IUPUI Chancellor Emeritus Gerald Bepko. "He's not an outwardly demonstrative or ostentatious person in any way. He doesn't talk about himself a lot. I guess it's because he's done so much he doesn't have to say anything."

It is for these achievements and many others that MacAllister receives this year's Michael A. Carroll Award, given annually to a man or woman who embodies the former deputy mayor's determination, and devotion to and enthusiasm for the community.

"To succeed, every big city needs leaders like P.E. MacAllister, who not only create jobs, but who take responsibility for ensuring that the political, business and philanthropic segments of civic life are working together to sustain and improve the city," said U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, a longtime friend of MacAllister's.

"When I was elected mayor of Indianapolis in 1967, P.E. was among my most valued civic advisers. His wise counsel and eagerness to apply his time and talents to the city contributed to the success of many initiatives."

'Product of ... grace'

However, MacAllister's story goes back much further than that. Born and raised in Milwaukee, he graduated from Carroll College in 1940. He then served five years in the U.S. Army Air Force as a captain, including 27 months overseas with the 1st Fighter Group. Afterward, he moved to Indianapolis to join the firm his father, E.W. MacAllister, started during the war — a Caterpillar dealership called MacAllister Machinery Co.

MacAllister attributes his current standing — and his belief in giving back to the community — to three things over which he had little control.

First, his father provided him with a college education at a time when nine out of 10 teenagers went straight to work after high school. Second, thanks to good genes, he's enjoyed excellent health all his life. And third, his position as a business leader simply landed in his lap.

"I started working [at MacAllister Machinery] in the parts department," MacAllister said. "I went through the ranks for six years. Then my father called me in one day and said, 'I'm feeling funny. There's something wrong with my head. I'm going to the doctor to get it fixed up. I'll be back in a couple of days. Can you handle things until I get back?' But he never came back. So I inherited a dealership."

His father suffered a debilitating stroke that placed his 32-year-old son at the helm of a major company. He's been chairman since 1952. His son, Chris, handles day-to-day operations as president and chief operating officer.

"I'm the product of a lot of grace," he said. "These things have all been handed to me. And I simply feel that to whom is given much, much is required. This state has been very good to me and my family, and if I can help make it better, then I'm called upon to do so."

Today, he provides financial assistance of some sort to 71 different causes. He's approached by approximately three new ones every week.

"I give heavily to opera, heavily to archaeology, and of course we support the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and United Way," MacAllister said. "I appreciate that there's more to life than a tractor company."

His most famous cultural achievement was creation of the MacAllister Awards. A longtime opera fan (as a kid in Milwaukee he used to take the streetcar to catch performances), he helped launch the Indianapolis Opera, became its president in 1977, then two years later founded the prestigious MacAllister Awards competition for up-and-coming singers. The annual awards continued until 2002.

'Life well-spent'

But his biggest project wasn't a single arts competition or charity group. It was the decades-long push to make Indianapolis a first-tier city.

"This community which we built was once a wreck, a joke," he said. "I tell people who marvel at downtown that it didn't just happen. We made it happen. You had the right leadership in the Mayor's Office and a dozen guys around him who wanted to pitch in and help. That's fruitful work, and it's a life well-spent when you can make that kind of change happen."

His biggest public role in that task was as president of the Capital Improvement Board, which he served in various capacities for 17 years. Besides presiding over construction of the Indianapolis Convention Center, he also oversaw what, in retrospect, now seems like a wildly audacious throw of the dice — the construction of the Hoosier Dome before the city had an NFL team to play in it.

"Had we not gotten a team, there would have been egg all over everybody's face," MacAllister said. "It was risky. Maybe too risky. We lined up the Circle City Classic as one way to get a game in there that first year. It's carried on as a result of that initial desperation."

He's a strong advocate of the public-private partnerships that helped bring such brick-and-mortar schemes to fruition — and that continue today with projects such as the $425 million convention-hotel complex under construction on the west side of downtown.

He learned a long time ago that a businessman brings a certain perspective to projects that politicians or academicians or arts people might lack — a desire to do things quickly and efficiently.

"[Businesspeople] are concerned with results," MacAllister said. "There are no failed businesses. If you fail, you're gone."

'Instant prestige'

Today, however, the city's most pressing issues — poor schools and crime — aren't amenable to bond issues and construction programs. The answer, he thinks, lies in better administration (for instance, appointed rather than elected school boards) and more community involvement. And don't expect overnight success. The problems the city faces are far more complex and intractable than, say, finding a way to get more hotel rooms downtown.

"It will take a lot more effort to take things up three or four notches than it took for us to raise it 40 notches," MacAllister said. "But I don't think we should stop trying."

These days, he can still usually be found at his business office at 9 a.m. sharp. Though he's scaled back involvement in MacAllister Machinery, he remains a go-to guy in the GOP for financing and advice.

"He attaches himself to a project and that is instant prestige and credibility," said Robert Vane, deputy chief of staff and communications director for Mayor Greg Ballard. "Politics has changed quite a bit since he first got involved. But if you want to run for office, he's the guy to see."

Vane, whose interest in medieval history helped draw him and MacAllister together, helped arrange his 90th birthday bash — during which Vane told the audience to be ready to assemble in 10 years for a 100th celebration.

"A German philosopher once defined a great man as someone who never reminds you of anyone else," he said. "Very few men can match that description, but P.E. MacAllister is one of them."
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