This week's show will feature ARCH Executive Director Mike Galbraith, who will discuss the importance of historic preservation in Fort Wayne. The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.
Several months ago the symptom began, slowly and almost imperceptibly. But as Phyllis Pond sat in the living room of her rural east Allen County home and struggled for breath through the 30-foot tube tethered to an oxygen machine in the kitchen, there was little doubt that one of Allen County's longest-serving state representatives would soon be leaving the stage.
The only question is when, and how. And, like so much else these days, the answer may be beyond her control.
“I'll see my doctor (Thursday), and if I can and he'll allow it, I will (return for one last session in November),” said Pond, who at the age of 82 is struggling against a disease – pulmonary fibrosis – that can be managed but can't be cured. That realization had already caused Pond to announce she would not seek re-election in 2014, but remaining in office even that long may no longer be possible for the woman whose lack of political flash too often obscured her persistence.
A wife to George Pond for 62 years, the mother of three and a teacher for 41 years – 37 of them at New Haven Elementary School – Pond gives every indication of being satisfied with her legislative legacy despite the frustration of not being able to seek re-election.
“When I went down there (to Indianapolis), the marriage penalty was still a problem,” Pond said, referring to a law that increased taxes on married couples. Working with Dan Quayle and others, Pond publicized the issue, and the government eventually responded. She also points with pride to her efforts to free the license bureaus of political patronage and her support for mediation in divorce cases, which she said has reduced courts' workload and couples' attorney fees. And, as a former teacher, school-related issues were never far from her attention.
If her doctor OKs it, Pond is still willing to drive back down to Indianapolis for one final session, with the help of a portable oxygen machine and perhaps her daughter. With her seniority, Pond's office is right off the House floor, and to reduce exertion speaker Brian Bosma has been willing to let her participate from the balcony.
But Pond, who has not been a smoker, acknowledges that her condition is tiring and potentially serious – so serious she has lost a lot of weight, worries about bacteria at the Statehouse and keeps an oxygen tank in the dining room in case a power failure renders her machine inoperative. If she is able to attend, she expects one issue to dominate the discussion: potential efforts to limit marriage to one man and one woman. It's the kind of contentious issue not normally associated with the low-key Pond, who at times has annoyed Republicans who didn't consider her conservative enough. Perhaps that's why she does not seem eager to join the same-sex marriage debate now.
“I'd rather watch that on TV,” she said.
Some may suggest that Pond stayed in office too long, but that decision was made by voters – a decision that at times was not even influenced by a Democratic challenger in the general election. And if that lack of opposition speaks to her district's strong Republican leanings, it also testifies to Pond's likeability and quiet strength.
That strength was recognized in 2005 when she became the first woman to sit in the front row of the House Chamber in the body's 189 years of existence.
Typically, Pond rejected the suggestion that the distinction made her some kind of feminist icon. She had just done her job with persistence and patience, she told me at the time. Besides, she added, “women's rights and men's rights are the same.” Such uncommon common sense will be hard to replace.
But that won't stop people from trying. Pond said at least seven people have already expressed an interest in succeeding her. If she resigns before her term is up, Republican precinct officials will appoint a temporary replacement.
“I really appreciate the kindness and confidence that's been shown to me. I hope I've been helpful,” said Pond, noting that she is the last of the legislative class of '78 still serving. I guess that puts Phyllis Pond in a class by herself, whatever the future brings.
To date, City Councilman Mitch Harper is the only Republican to have announced a run for Fort Wayne mayor in 2015. But the rumor mill has added another possibility lately: Paul Helmke, who served as mayor from 1988 to 2000 and is now an instructor at Indiana University in Bloomington after a stint as president of the Brady Campaign/Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
When asked for a comment, Helmke didn't confirm that he will be a candidate.
But he didn't rule it out, either, acknowledging that some people had urged him to consider the idea.
“I loved being mayor,” he told me.