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The stories of two gentlemen from Columbus, Indiana

Occasional Observer

Two gentlemen from Indiana, one a politician the other a public-spirited industrialist, show strikingly by example what has happened to the Republican party over the past half century. Curiously, both men came from the same town, Columbus, Ind., a thriving community of 48,000 people about 40 miles south of Indianapolis.

Born in Columbus in 1959, Michael Richard Pence was raised in an Irish Catholic family that owned several gas stations. While studying history at Hanover College (B.A.1981) he became a “born again” evangelical Catholic. Graduating from Indiana University  Law School in 1986, he practiced law briefly and ran two unsuccessful campaigns for Congress, finally winning a seat in 2000.

In his years as a congressman, Pence was known for his social conservatism, opposing abortion, Planned Parenthood and expanding rights for LGBTQ people. He liked to tell people that he was, “a  Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”

In 2012, Pence ran for governor of Indiana and won. His most remembered accomplishment was signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics claimed allowed businesses to refuse to serve gays and lesbians. After a widespread backlash, the bill was revised to be more acceptable to disaffected groups.

Pence was selected as Trump’s running mate in 2015 presumably to help him with conservative voters and because of his previous experience in government.

Vice presidents, until fairly recently, have tended to stay quiet and in the background; Pence’s term as vice president was no exception. His obsequiousness in his relationship with Trump was widely noted and often made fun of.

Lately, Pence has become admired as never before for his refusal to yield to Trump’s demand that he use his position as vice president to overturn the results of the presidential election. His courageous display of rectitude on Jan. 6, 2021, as Trump’s supporters called for his life was exemplary. However, Pence was well aware of Trump’s illegal election maneuvering both before and after the election and did nothing to protest publicly or attempt to stop it.  Had he done so, the attempt to overthrow the duly elected government might not have happened. While it may be part of Pence’s personality to avoid confrontation, it is also commonly known that he is seriously considering a presidential bid in 2024 and seems very reluctant to alienate Trump supporters.



In 1967, Steven Roberts (widower of NPR correspondent Cokie Roberts) wrote a lead article for Esquire magazine with a portrait of J. Irwin Miller on the cover and a striking caption stating, “This man should be the next President of the United States.” Although Miller himself had no interest in becoming a political candidate, the point was made; here was a sterling individual with the right sort of experience and  character for a national leader. And according to Roberts, he was quite personable as well.

J. Irwin Miller (1909 - 2005) was born into a Columbus, Ind., family that had become reasonably well-to-do over the years owning some real estate, a local bank and a modest company that made small diesel engines, the Cummins Engine Corporation.

A serious student, Miller graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale and acquired a graduate degree from Oxford. He went to work in 1934 for Cummins Engine, working his way up the hierarchy to become president and later chairman of the board, serving for the next 60 years with a time out only for wartime service in the U.S. Navy.

Under Miller’s leadership, Cummins Engine grew from a modest regional business into an unusually successful Fortune 500 company.



In 1954, he established the Cummins Foundation and made an offer for the Foundation to pay all architectural fees for new public buildings in Columbus. Although most Americans have never even heard of it, Columbus is known to architects from all over the country because it contains nearly 100 buildings of significant architectural distinction.

Only a small handful of major American cities offer a larger display of outstanding modern architecture. This cornucopia of art and architecture is the result of the efforts of one individual: J. Irwin Miller. He loved good architecture and worked tirelessly to make Columbus more beautiful.

Despite his devotion to business, including the local Irwin Trust Company where he served as president and chairman over the years, Miller took on an enormous number of civic improvement projects and was responsible for several public art projects including a magnificent sculpture by Henry Moore.

Miller served as a trustee of many organizations, including Yale University, the Ford Foundation, The Emma Willard School and the Museum of Modern Art.  In addition, he helped establish the National Council of Churches, a major force in establishing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A Republican of a sort seldom seen today, Miller was active in politics but he was independent enough in 1964 to vote for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater.

Miller was a true benefactor and his unselfish sense of civic responsibility stands out against our more selfish world. We could use more leaders like Miller today.


Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

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