Bill Hudnut ’54: Another Charter Alumnus in the Nation’s Service

William Hudnut ’54
William “Bill” Hudnut ’54

Tributes like this to a Princeton alumnus typically begin with an honoree’s unique contribution to public life. In that regard, William “Bill” Hudnut (’54) certainly fits the mold. He was unique, crafting his very own strategy for revitalizing an American city in an era ruefully recalled for widespread urban decline. As one of the few prominent alumni devoting their careers to the nation’s municipal service, Hudnut made his mark as the innovative mayor of Indianapolis for four memorable terms, a total of 16 years.

Hudnut came to Princeton from the Darrow School where he was valedictorian. His record at Princeton carried all the signs pointing to at least three robust professional careers—Presbyterian minister, government official, and jointly public speaker, author, and professor. His wife Beverly recalls seeing his Princeton academic record which revealed in Bill’s upperclass years only one grade below a 1-, and on that occasion, he received a 2+. Bill majored in History, graduating magna cum laude with election to Phi Beta Kappa. Returning for a major reunion, Bill insisted on showing Beverly a cherished Princeton venue—his Firestone Library carrel. After college he continued his Princeton academic record, graduating first in his class at Union Theological Seminary where he studied for the Presbyterian ministry and received an MDiv degree.

Though a standout academic, Hudnut was also the quintessential Princeton legacy—familial affiliations now span five generations. That is a lot of Princeton tradition to uphold. The Princeton patriarch was his grandfather, William H. Hudnut Sr. (1884), who graduated with distinction. Four generations of Princetonians followed—his father William Jr. (1927); Bill (’54) his brothers Bob (’56), David (’57),Stewart (’61), and Tom (’69), as well as his cousins Hank (’49) and Herb (’53), his son William H. Hudnut, IV (’84), and grand nephew Adam Hudnut-Buemler (’17).

Among his salient contributions as Indianapolis’ mayor: To reconstitute Indianapolis as a major conference and tourist venue, Hudnut had to build an infrastructure. However, Indianapolis had none of the aesthetic, natural, or historical attributes of other tourist designations cities like Boston, Denver, or San Diego. Under his leadership, the City leveraged its central geographic location, commitment to fitness and health (especially with Eli Lilly headquartered locally), and proximity to academic institutions such as Purdue and Indiana University to amplify their sports programs. He built a new domed roof sports stadium as an expansion of the existing convention center. Without much prompting, he would admit that a strategic $77.5 million stadium overhaul was expressly designed to lure a major sports team. More than once he recounted how Baltimore lost the Colts—not how he “won” by enticing them to move to Indianapolis. Between the time the new stadium was announced and BEFORE the Colts announced their shuttle to Indianapolis, the city booked millions of dollars in new convention business. Overall, Bill leveraged the then nascent domain of public-private partnerships to make Indianapolis a solid place to live, work, and raise a family.

As a public persona, he was never more than one outfit away from the consummate politician’s truly common touch. Every bit a 6’5” larger-than-life figure, he dressed as a leprechaun for annual St. Patrick’s Day parades. In the summer he would toss his business suit to run through the sprinkler with inner city kids. There seemed to be no subset of the Indianapolis demographic to which he did not reach out with a sincere and unique voice. His program kickoffs were often as amusing as they were clever. To underscore the importance of litter control in fighting urban blight, he showcased what became the iconic “Hudnut Hook”, skillfully lobbing wadded paper into city trash receptacles. The evening news would often lead with these marquee initiatives.

He raised over $4 billion to revitalize the downtown sector, triggering one of America’s most successful and enduring urban facelifts. At Bill’s memorial service in Indianapolis, then-Indiana Governor and now Vice-President Mike Pence captured what Indianapolis residents perhaps remember best about Hudnut: because of him, “Indianapolis was headed to be a global city of enormous influence.” One of Bill’s former Corporation Counsels Sheila Kennedy recalls both the Presbyterian minister and mayor: “[He] believed his religion required him to work for the well-being of others, particularly the marginalized and disadvantaged, and to respect political and religious differences.” In fact, Hudnut was a municipal leader in affirmative action and though his voice may be characterized as moderate, demonstrated support for civil rights and opposed discrimination against gays—as early as 1984. It is notable that in this era of vitriolic polarization, Bill’s memorials echo a common uplifting theme: he was a uniter and healer whose consensus approach to political leadership is sadly missed. When the Indianapolis Star or a newscaster wants to comment favorably on a government proposal, the narrative reads, “that sounds a lot like something [Mayor] Bill Hudnut would do.” The appellation uttered most frequently to describe him is “visionary”.

At age 82, Bill Hudnut attends his statue dedication in Indianapolis on December 14, 2014, with statue artists Ana Koh Varilla and Jeff Varilla of Koh-Varilla Guild of Chicago.

Bill became the longest serving Indianapolis mayor, completing four terms. Like many big city mayors who grew restless and sought statewide office, he sought statewide office, chasing exurban and small-town voters who proved unsympathetic to his urban victories. Dedicating his senior years to capturing replicable wisdom to inform the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, he served as a Chevy Chase town council member and mayor, which qualified him to rejoin the National League of Cities Board and Executive Committee due to his previous role as President of that organization. Bill also worked for a string of prominent think tanks like the Indianapolis Hudson Institute and the progressive Urban Land Institute. In the final phase of his career, he worked at Georgetown University. In 1986, Princeton presented Bill with the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, which annually honors the alumnus making the most outstanding contribution to American public life. Several fellow Charter Club members recall Bill as a “pleasant, friendly guy” who was above all, an extremely serious student”. To one classmate in his 1954 section, he appeared to be so smart that he “probably cultivated a low profile by design.” Another fellow ’54 alum (non-Charter) confessed that he only got to know Bill after graduation, remarking “I became one of his biggest fans…Bill was one of the most genuine of human beings.” His “generous spirit” and “love of life” were especially contagious.

With that sentiment in mind, it is notable to remember a Hudnut family tradition. No matter what songs the kids were prompted to sing in the home of generations of Presbyterian ministers, they ended with a hearty rendition of “Old Nassau.”

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