Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton works in his office April 29 in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global & International Studies — Indiana University in Bloomington. (Chris Howell / Herald-Times)
Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton works in his office April 29 in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global & International Studies — Indiana University in Bloomington. (Chris Howell / Herald-Times)
It was supposed to be a conversation but Lee Hamilton was preaching.

The 87-year-old former congressman was seated at the center of the stage last March. Long legs that helped him reach the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame were crossed. The bony index finger on his right hand pointed to the sky as he bellowed about the importance of NATO.

His voice grew louder in response to a question about China. The U.S. needs to push back, send ships to the South China Sea and take a tougher stance against the country’s human rights violations. Then he paused and the 139-seat auditorium fell silent.

“That’s my second sermon of the day,” he said.

Hamilton, now 88, has spent the better part of his life trying to improve the country. He spent 34 years drafting, debating and voting on legislation as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, a body created to examine the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He is a distinguished professor in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University, a school named after him and the late Sen. Richard Lugar in 2018. He’s written a column nearly every week since he was elected to Congress in 1964 and two books since leaving office.

Most of his writings focus on the importance of representative democracy, diplomacy and compromise. But early in his life, Hamilton’s mind was consumed by one thing: basketball.

Born in Daytona Beach, Florida, his father’s job as a Methodist minister took his family to Chattanooga, Tennessee, before finally settling in Evansville. Hamilton grew up in a neighborhood with a basketball goal in a vacant lot. He was there year round, sometimes playing with friends or just shooting by himself.

Always tall for his age, Hamilton grew to 6 feet 3 inches at his peak, although some programs listed him as 6-4. He played forward and center on a team that went to the Final Four of what was then a single-class tournament for all of Indiana’s high schools. He was a four-year starter at DePauw University, where he was named an outstanding senior in 1952. Then reality hit.

“At DePauw, I walked across the stage to get my diploma, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what I wanted to do,” Hamilton said.
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