Chances are you never knew Dick Cardwell.

But your life as a citizen is better because of him.

Without Dick Cardwell, there would be no Indiana Open Meetings Law.

Without Dick Cardwell, there would be no Indiana Access to Public Records Act.

Without Dick Cardwell, politicians and cronies and grifters would have happily gone ahead conducting public business without public oversight.

They didn’t like Dick Cardwell much. He believed in the public’s right to know.

Those in power tended to put cynical quotation marks around that phrase, dismissing it as an obstacle to the machinery of government.

Some of them still feel that way.

For them, Dick Cardwell was a pain in the neck.

He died this month at the age of 86.

As general counsel and executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, he was a constant advocate for the First Amendment. He lobbied the Indiana General Assembly tirelessly, building coalitions when he could and holding members’ feet to the fire when he had to.

Today, the Indiana Open Meetings Law is taken for granted.

But it wasn’t granted. It was fought for.

Believe it or not, for decades much of the work of Indiana’s legislature occurred outside the public eye.

It was a daring notion in the 1970s that openness in government should be extended to the local level, that city councils and the like should have to conduct their business in public view, that agendas should be posted, that notice be given to the public and the press, and that limits on executive sessions should be clearly defined.

The Open Meetings Law took that daring notion and — after some serious lobbying and arm-twisting and editorializing by Indiana newspapers — made it the standard to which elected officials would be held.

It was a daring notion, a few years after the passage of the Open Meetings Law, that openness in government should extend to public records, that a citizen should have access to documents buried in courthouses and town halls, and that the legal burden for denying access should be on the government.

But again, Dick Cardwell prevailed.

He had help, of course. The HSPA was a stronger organization back then. Indiana newspapers and newspapers in general were a stronger industry.

But Dick was the guy who put those forces together.

If my phone rang and Dick Cardwell needed help with an issue, I responded. So did dozens of editors and publishers across the state.

Maybe it was setting up a face-to-face with a recalcitrant legislator. Maybe it was making a trip to the Statehouse to act as a sort of “wingman” for Dick so the legislators knew there were folks back home who bought newsprint by the truckload and ink by the barrel who were on Dick’s team.

Whatever he needed, we did the best to provide.

Ultimately, of course, it was Dick’s leadership that made the difference.

He was the guy who told us where we ought to be going and how he thought we might be able to get there.

The great irony of his career is that in persuading government to be more accessible and open to its citizens he made it more credible and trustworthy.

Sunshine has a way of doing that.
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