A business, sports and community leader for almost 70 years in Columbus has received one of the top honors from the state.
Joe Swope Jr., 85, is one of 24 Indiana senior citizens selected to receive the 2020 Golden Hoosier Award, presented through the office of Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch in collaboration with Indiana Family and Social Service Administration’s Division of Aging.
The recipients are being recognized for their long-term commitments to volunteering, their positive impacts to the lives of others and for serving as exceptional role models, Crouch said.
As a child, Swope had quite a role model to look up to. His father, Joe Swope Sr., was quarterback for the Indiana Hoosiers in 1915 during a brief time that Jim Thorpe serve as assistant coach. Thorpe is considered by many to be the most prolific athletes of the 20th Century.
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After settling in Columbus during the Great Depression, Joe Swope, Sr. would eventually become president of a metal fabrication and metal stamping company called Columbus Industries. Later in life, he became a recipient of the Sagamore of the Wabash – considered at the time as the highest honor bestowed by the Indiana governor.
But Joe Swope Jr. gained popularity in his own right. At Columbus High School, he played all three major sports (football, basketball and baseball). After playing football for one year under coach Bob Johnson, Swope was introduced to the new varsity coach: a former star quarterback from Elkhart and freshman coach at Indiana State University named Max Andress.
Swope’s effectiveness as an offensive fullback for the Bulldogs was described this way in a Sept. 12, 1951 newspaper account: “Swope literally tore the New Castle Trojans’ defenses to shreds during the entire game.”
After graduating high school in 1953, he spent a few years as an student coach at the University of Illinois in Champaign. When he transferred to Indiana University, he was offered the same position. But before he received his degree from I-U, his father asked him to drop out, return to Bartholomew County, help out at Columbus Industries, as well as manage family farms.
After returning home, Swope began a long friendship with Andress, who coached 20 years at the high school before becoming a two-term mayor of Columbus.
Well-liked, well-known and hard-working, Swope did well while working in the family business. But for Swope, money wasn’t everything.
“Where there is a need, Joe is there,’ said Susan Thayer Fye, who nominated Swope for the award. “When he gets asked to help, he has always said ‘yes’ for a lifetime of giving back to the Columbus community.”
“I love this community very, very much,” Swope said. “That love, plus the support of a lot of people, motivated me to continue doing my volunteer work.”
At the request of Andress, Swope worked with former Butler University football player and Columbus native Paul Martin to establish a Youth Football league. Over time, the organization would evolve into the Police Athletic League (PAL) football program.
While his father worked with Jim Thorpe, one young player coached by Swope, Jr. was Columbus native Mike Phipps, who was recognized as an All-American at Purdue University and later play in the NFL from 1970 to 1981.
In 1961, Swope Jr. accepted the position of chairman of the Disaster Planning committee for Bartholomew County created by the U.S. Civil Defense program. After that agency was dissolved by the federal government, the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce encouraged both Swope and Force Construction founder Don Force to develop fire brigades at most of the city’s major employers.
Swope volunteered for years with Development Services, Inc. to initiate support services for adults and children with disabilities. He also served some time on the Bartholomew County 4-H Fair board of directors, as well as assisted with a few fairground projects.
Despite his work and volunteer commitments, Swope still made time to maintain his reputation as an athlete by coaching an adult slow pitch softball team that won a state championship. He was also a member of the Cobras, a local tennis team that won the first Columbus Team Tennis title.
Even 20 years after graduating from high school, the athlete remained so well-known that an upscale men’s clothing store featured him in their advertising. Dalton and Payne stated that “as Joe Swope, Jr. knows, all you need is Lee (jeans)” and “stop in soon and as often as Joe Swope Jr.”
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Swope – who had taken college courses in police administration – served as a special deputy for then-Bartholomew County Sheriff Jimmie McKinney.
After his friend, Democrat Fred Armstrong, was elected mayor in the mid 1990s, Swope approached Armstrong about forming a diverse 11-member Mayor’s Advisory Council. Although the group was made up of half-Republicans and half-Democrats, Swope says he never heard one partisan argument from an advisory council member during Armstrong’s four terms as mayor.
“One of the advisory council’s goal was to set up an emergency warning system for Columbus,” Swope said. “That idea eventually caught on throughout the county.”
He tried running for office one time. In 2006, Swope lost a GOP primary for Bartholomew County Council to Keith Sells by only 17 votes.
But Swope still had plenty of influence. More than a decade after the Second Street Bridge opened in 1999, he approached the late columnist and historian Harry McCawley with an idea to dedicate the structure after Columbus Mayor Robert N. Stewart.
Both Republicans and Democrats had lauded Stewart for his successful efforts to attract new employers and diversify the local economy, so there was little opposition. The former mayor was present at the dedication of the Robert N. Stewart Bridge on Sept. 4, 2013 – two years before Stewart died.
As a businessman, Swope enjoyed a long and successful career. After Columbus Industries was sold to an Illinois firm in 1974, Swope worked for a few different firms before starting his own business. J.A. Swope and Associates, Inc., represented about half a dozen metal fabricating companies as he visited manufacturers to help them improve their production.
Even after selling his business to an Indianapolis firm, he remained a partner in the company called Swope and Karas Sales Associates until his retirement at the age of 81 in 2016.
Today, Swope continues to serve as a citizen advocate on the Patient Safety Council at Columbus Regional Health, as well as help coordinate special events sponsored by the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Dept.
While being interviewed, the retired businessman would laugh every time he was told about the praise he has received. It wasn’t long before Swope revealed why the accolades make him uncomfortable.
“It was so easy for me to go from one endeavor to another, and it still is,” Swope said. “But there have been so many other people that helped bring things together for our community.”
The attribute that makes Columbus exceptionally special is that residents from all types of socioeconomic backgrounds step forward to make positive change, he said.
“And that just makes me so proud,” Swope said.
“So many of our senior citizens are exceptional role models in their communities, and have made long-term commitments to volunteering in their neighborhoods, towns and cities. These unsung leaders make positive impacts on the lives of others and improve the overall well being of our state.” – Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch on this year’s recipients of the Golden Hoosiers Award.
Joe Swope, Jr.
Raised in: Columbus
Education: Columbus High School Class of 1953. Attended both University of Illinois and Indiana University
Profession: Family business was Columbus Industries. Retired as a founder and owner of Swope and Karas Sales Associates in Indianapolis at the age of 81 in 2016.
Family: One son, one daughter. Three grandchildren.