HICKS: The gift of John Fisher went beyond business

July 6, 2009

It would be artless this week to write an article on economics and business in Indiana without remarking upon the passing of John Fisher. Much has been written about his legacy over this past week, so I will make do with an anecdote and a lesson I have learned from him.

Shortly after coming to Muncie less than two years ago, I participated in Ball State University's annual forecasting roundtable. The event attracts a large crowd and I was one of several panelists to speak on the local and state economy. After a successful program, a large man—looking to be in his early 70s—stopped by to ask a couple of (good) questions about my presentation. As is traditional in these things, my short biography had been read, which included the fact that I had graduated from the University of Tennessee. Fisher mentioned that he was also a proud Vol. As it turned out, he graduated exactly 60 years before I did.

So here's the lesson:

John Fisher worked from childhood until mandatory retirement at 70. He did very well. Men of his generation did just that in droves. Fisher was perhaps considerably more successful financially and in corporate leadership than most. Running a Fortune 500 company is a memorable achievement, but that is not why he is so fondly remembered across Indiana. The Fishers have also been remarkably generous with their wealth, but that is not why he is so fondly remembered. I think the former Ball Corp. leader is so well-thought-of in Indiana for two entirely different reasons.

First, he stayed here in Indiana to make a difference. His accomplishments could have taken him to Congress or the Senate, a cabinet appointment or an ambassadorship. As far less talented men went to Washington and moved in the comfortable circles of power, Fisher stayed in east-central Indiana. Here was the fulcrum from which he tried to change the world.

Second, he gave of his time. Until his death, almost 25 years after his retirement, Fisher participated vibrantly in matters large and small affecting colleges and universities, communities and businesses. He did these things without fanfare or pay. Only one thing can explain why a wealthy man, in his 90s, would eschew a comfortable retirement for the anguish of innumerable meetings and planning sessions, quarterly reports and policy discussions: He cared deeply about Indiana, her people and institutions.

In academic circles, much has been written about the loss of social participation and its effect on communities. There's growing research on how the decline of Fisher's type of involvement in community hangs heavy on economic growth and vitality. No one can blame John for that.

At a time when corporate leaders suffer their worst reputations in a half century, the life of John Fisher provides quite the opposite example. God bless him.


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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