Jim Schellinger Builds Bridges
By Jim Hanchett
At a time when policy compromise and cross-the-aisle cooperation is out of fashion, Jim Schellinger is optimistically old school. His professional, and now public, life is dedicated to service without politics or pride as stumbling blocks.
“This is not a time to be divided,” he says. “This is a time to pull together. The American people wanted things shaken up and that’s what we’re getting. But we have to do it in a way that builds respect for each other and for our institutions.”
Schellinger knows all about building. Building respect. Building institutions. Building buildings. And that’s the spirit he brings to the council that advises Dean John D. Graham and other SPEA leaders: “I’ve been on a lot of committees and boards, but never anything as meaningful as SPEA.”
The background he brings to the group is equally meaningful. He was the sixth of eight children, raised in a too-small house in South Bend, sharing a bedroom with four brothers. His dad, an engineer at Bendix, was laid off for nine months when Jim was in seventh grade. That taught him a lesson he applies to this day in economic development: “Jobs are nonpartisan. It’s not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing. Everyone deserves a chance to work.”
Another lesson came when he graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in architecture and started applying for jobs. One firm never acknowledged his application. Through a circuitous route, he ended up at that firm anyway and rose to be chairman of CSO Architects, one of the state’s largest firms just 12 years later. Now every applicant gets a response: “No matter how big you get or your company gets, you need to do the right thing.”
CSO, under Schellinger’s leadership, completed landmark projects such as the Indianapolis International Airport, the JW Marriott Hotel, and the Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel. Schellinger also applied his agreeable, charismatic approach to education and that resulted in new schools in Columbus and Indianapolis. Building schools builds communities. So does service. While raising three sons with his wife, Laura, Schellinger found time to serve on civic boards including the Super Bowl Host Committee and the Indianapolis Capital Improvement Board. From that flowed honors including a Sagamore of the Wabash in 2003 from Gov. Joe Kernan, a Kentucky Colonel in 2009, a lifetime achievement award from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 2011 and a Sagamore of the Wabash from Gov. Mike Pence in 2016.
When Schellinger agreed to take a leave of absence from CSO, Pence appointed him to spur business growth and job creation as president of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Earlier this year Gov. Eric Holcomb named him Secretary of Commerce, making him a global ambassador for his home state. It’s a sales job he does not find difficult at all: “I mean look at all that we have as a state. We are terrific. We have a low cost of living. Our wages are up. We have a low unemployment rate. Our state is absolutely thriving. We’re No.1 in the Midwest in almost every measurable category.”
Schellinger brings that same enthusiasm to SPEA. He met Graham in 2008 and joined the Dean’s Council in 2009, calling it among the best things he’s ever done. With Laura, he sponsors a student through an annual scholarship. “When I meet with the students I’m always struck by how intelligent and dedicated they are,” he says. “They’re focused and a lot more internationally aware than we ever were in college.”
Serving on the council is also, in a sense, a return to college for Schellinger: “I’m way out of my element. The people on the council are spectacular. You go to the meetings and get to rub elbows with people like David Wang, former MIT Chair Dana Mead, Fred Webber, Al Hubbard, Chuck Schalliol, Bart Peterson and Melanie Walker, to name a few. We talk about the issues of the day and the research that is going on at SPEA and I learn so much.”
The primary lesson is that SPEA is uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge between advocates for growth and protectors of the environment, Republicans and Democrats, Indiana and the world. “There is a huge need for the kind of public policy that SPEA can provide,” Schellinger says. “The next generation of students is poised to do great things. They don’t see the political divides that my generation does and they embrace each other’s differences. I’m tremendously optimistic. We’re going forward.”
Spoken like a true builder.