May 22, 2020

Called to serve: Retiring ICC director exemplifies a life of witness for the Church

Right, Glenn Tebbe and Jessica Fraser, director for the Indiana Institute for Working Families, discuss proposed bills before a hearing at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis on Feb. 8, 2017. Tebbe recently retired as executive director of the Indiana Catholic Center. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Right, Glenn Tebbe and Jessica Fraser, director for the Indiana Institute for Working Families, discuss proposed bills before a hearing at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis on Feb. 8, 2017. Tebbe recently retired as executive director of the Indiana Catholic Center. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Victoria Arthur (Special to The Criterion)

Glenn Tebbe has always viewed his life as a calling.

And most of the time, according to his wife of nearly 49 years, the calls have been quite literal.

Laura Jo Tebbe recounts how shortly after earning a master’s degree in history from Xavier University in Cincinnati in 1972, her husband received an offer for a job he never sought—teaching seventh-grade social studies at St. Lawrence School in Lawrenceburg, Ind.—and launching a career he never anticipated.

A few years later, teaching at St. Louis School in nearby Batesville, he got an unexpected phone call from the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Greensburg, offering him the role of the school’s principal. In an era when most Catholic school principals were religious sisters and at the very least individuals with much more experience, 26-year-old Glenn Tebbe answered the call and served faithfully for the next 18 years.

Fast-forward two decades to when Tebbe was the leader of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association (INPEA), an organization he helped build from the ground up. One day in the halls of the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis, then-Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein called him by name with another opportunity: taking the reins of the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana.

Again, Tebbe answered yes—a response that would reverberate throughout the state for the next 16 years and result in numerous advances for the causes the Church holds dear, especially helping the most vulnerable.

Last week, just ahead of his 71st birthday, Tebbe retired from the ICC, but not before receiving the state’s highest honor—the Sagamore of the Wabash—from Gov. Eric Holcomb for his distinguished record of service to the people of Indiana.

(Related: In their words: Church, state leaders reflect on career of Glenn Tebbe)

“To have a job where you can try to make the world a better place is perfect,” Laura Jo Tebbe said. “Glenn has always approached his life and his work very much as a vocation.”

Close friend and colleague John Elcesser, who has served 13 years as executive director of the INPEA, the organization Tebbe once led, has witnessed that quality firsthand.

“Glenn has dedicated his entire adult life to serving the Church and being an advocate for the less fortunate,” Elcesser said. “You can see that in his involvement with school choice—enabling families no matter what their income to choose a school that’s the right fit for their kids. You can see it in his tireless efforts in protecting the unborn, or trying to prohibit predatory lending, or being an advocate for immigrants. All of those who typically don’t have a voice—or at least not a voice in the political process. Glenn has spent his life being their advocate.

“Working with him side by side at the Statehouse all those years, I know that he’s incredibly well-respected by people on both sides of the aisle,” continued Elcesser, who said he considers Tebbe not only a friend and colleague but a mentor and role model. “I always say that he’s not only respected because of his passion and skill, but because of the person he is. He doesn’t just talk the talk; he walks the walk.”

Chasing down’ legislators

And walk he did at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis—often at a brisk pace. During his busiest months at the beginning of every year, when the Indiana General Assembly was in session, he was always on the go. There were bills to track, hearings that required his testimony, and legislators to meet and persuade. In fact, his dogged determination earned him a special moniker from his longtime colleague and friend.

“My nickname for him is Tebbe Terrier,” Elcesser said with a laugh. “Because if you saw him at the Statehouse chasing down a legislator, he’s just like a terrier. He knows what he’s got to do, and he’ll chase them all over the place until they understand how important a particular issue is.”

School choice is one such issue, and an area in which Tebbe and Elcesser collaborated closely. The INPEA, originally an ad hoc group that gained formal structure and influence under Tebbe’s leadership and has continued to grow with Elcesser at the helm, represents Catholic, Lutheran and other non-public schools around the state.

Along with the ICC, the organization was instrumental in the passage of groundbreaking school choice legislation that has served as a model for other states. The School Scholarship Tax Credit and the Indiana Choice Scholarship (voucher) programs, passed in 2009 and 2011, respectively, ensured that low- and middle-income Hoosier families could select the right school for their children.

“I remember our late hours at the Statehouse counting votes—who was in support, who wasn’t in support and who we needed to talk to,” Elcesser recalled. “That was a big victory, but you don’t always win. That’s the challenge with a job like Glenn’s. You lose a lot, and you’ve got to be able to take those losses and come back and fight the next day, on another issue or the same issue. Glenn was always able to be resilient. There were days where the job was not easy at all. But Glenn always handled it with class.”

‘He could work with anyone’

Nel Thompson, who served as the ICC’s executive assistant from 1974 until her retirement last year and worked closely with Tebbe throughout his tenure, echoed those sentiments.

“He always had a good working relationship with legislators and with other organizations we worked with,” Thompson said. “Even when we would be working with legislators who didn’t hold our view, he could always explain the Church’s position, and people respected him and sought him out for support or information. He could work with anyone.”

Always underlying his actions, she and others said, was Tebbe’s respect for people and his deep knowledge of and commitment to the Catholic Church and its teachings.

“Glenn was effective because he was very dedicated and knowledgeable—about how the legislature works, and about the Catholic Church,” Thompson said. “Not only that, he had the heart for it—a true love for the Church.”

Four years ago, on the occasion of the ICC’s 50th anniversary, Tebbe reflected on his role as the organization’s fifth executive director. “My job is to make sure the Catholic perspective is part of the discussion,” he said. “I try to be the voice of our five bishops, and also to enable the Catholic faithful and all people of good will to help shape public policy for the best interests of the common good.”

Helping fulfill the Church’s mission

According to Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis, Tebbe has fulfilled that mission exceedingly well.

“Glenn’s many years of dedication, expertise and experience have been indispensable for so many in our state,” Archbishop Thompson said. “He has enabled the Catholic Church to be most effective in addressing multiple issues that impact education, families, poverty, the sacredness of life and the dignity of persons. Most people will never know all that he has done behind the scenes.”

The ICC’s work will continue under the leadership of Angela Espada, who was named executive director of the organization effective on Jan. 1 of this year. Tebbe stayed on to acclimate Espada to the new role and work alongside her through the 2020 legislative session.

Now, the Tebbes—high school sweethearts who graduated in 1967 from Brookville High School, married shortly after graduating together from Marian University in Indianapolis, and raised four children together—look forward to what’s next.

“It’ll be different,” Laura Jo Tebbe says of her husband’s suddenly free schedule. A longtime teacher herself until her retirement, she has been her husband’s biggest supporter and partner in his life’s work. “We always said that his job was like our fifth child. He would come home and we would talk about it, and worry about it, and nurture it.”

Spending more time with their 10 grandchildren surely will be on the agenda going forward. The Tebbes will also likely stay involved with their longtime community of Greensburg, including

St. Mary Parish. And Tebbe’s wife said she is certain her husband would want to continue supporting the archdiocese in any way he may be of service.

“We’ve always laughed about how we are very literally called by God to do the things we are doing,” Laura Jo said. “Glenn is just waiting for the next call.”

(Victoria Arthur is a freelance writer and a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.) †

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