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Commentary: Jim Browning, a champion of the city

April 14, 2008

It was probably 15 years ago when Jim Browning called and invited me to lunch for the first time.

I don't recall why he extended the invitation, but I remember from the lunch that he was interested in what I had to say. And that surprised me.

I didn't know Jim then, but I knew of him through his architecture firm, Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf. I also associated him with the group of bold civic leaders who came up with the amateur sports strategy and other ideas that launched the city's resurgence in the 1970s and early 1980s. I was in high school and college when most of that happened. It wasn't every day that someone of that generation who moved in those circles invited me to lunch, much less cared what I had to say.

That first lunch turned into semi-regular lunches and later included Kent Smith, a friend of mine from high school days who is now an executive producer with a media company in Chicago.

Three or four times a year, the three of us would get together to talk about how far the city had come and what it still lacked. We came up with ideas and shot ideas down. Jim and Kent pursued a few of them, using me as a sounding board. (I regularly reminded Jim that my job at IBJ precluded me from getting involved.)

To me, we seemed an unlikely trio. Two "kids" from the east side and the venerable old landscape architect whose ideas, desire and connections had helped transform his hometown.

But Jim didn't care where ideas came from as long as they made Indianapolis a more attractive place to live.

"What are we going to do? We've got to get things stirred up around here," Jim would say to us, never satisfied with the city's progress.

It had just dawned on me late last month that we were overdue for lunch when Kent called with the news that Jim had died the day before, one week short of his 70th birthday.

The obituary that followed included a line that I don't doubt for a second: "No one will ever care more about his hometown, Indianapolis, than Jim Browning."

That's why Jim at one time or another served on or was president of the boards of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Penrod Society, Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana and the Indiana World Skating Academy. There isn't space here to list all the local groups he supported.

And of course the city is full of landmarks that Jim played a role in creating, either personally or through his former firm. From the bricked streets of Monument Circle to the Central Canal. From Circle Centre to the Eiteljorg Museum to Victory Field, Jim's fingerprints are everywhere.

"For a period of years, it seemed he was working on every major project in the downtown area," said Herb Simon, whose real estate development firm gave shape to some of Jim Browning's dreams.

"Jim was among that group of guys who did so much for the city and started Indianapolis on its upward trend."

Another of that group was Jim Morris, the former head of Lilly Endowment and the Indianapolis Water Co. who recently returned to Indianapolis after several years leading the United Nations' World Food Programme.

"He lived and died the well-being of the city," said Morris, a friend of Browning's for 30 years.

"He wasn't involved with politics and was equally friendly with people of all political persuasions," Morris said. "He was very effective in bringing people together from many backgrounds."

I think that's the quality in Jim that prompted him to befriend Kent and me, two people who aren't power brokers by a long shot.

I'll miss Jim and his willingness to include me. And we'll all miss his relentless pursuit of a better Indianapolis.



Harton is editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com.
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