Longtime Seymour mayor passes away


If a person had to use just one word to describe former Seymour Mayor John Steele Burkhart, it would have to be service.

Burkhart, who died early Friday morning at the age of 80, served as mayor from 1990 to 2003.

But those 13 years at the helm of the city are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the things the Seymour native did for his community.

From the Boys Club of Seymour, which he joined as a child when it was located on Chestnut Street downtown, to the Sertoma Club of Jackson County to the Seymour Elks Lodge, Burkhart stayed involved.

In fact, it would be hard to find an activity or organization the Cummins Engine Co. retiree wasn’t involved in at some point in his life, which began July 16, 1939.

Burkhart was elected mayor by 12 Democrat precinct committeemen in November 1990, filling a vacancy created by William “Bill” Bailey, who was elected as the District 66 state representative.

Bailey said Friday that his successor was truly a big personality.

“John was always very affable, and he was obviously very community-minded,” Bailey said.

Burkhart and Bailey first became friends when they where in the Jaycees together. The two later worked together when Bailey was mayor and Burkhart was the Democratic Party chairman.

“He was always slow to be willing to disappoint, and I found that to be a real strength, yet he had an idea of what he thought the community should be doing and headed toward,” Bailey said. “He also was willing to be slow to build up consensus, which frustrated some folks, but it was the better way.

“When the history of Seymour is written, I can’t think of anything negative that will be written about John,” he said.

Present Mayor Craig Luedeman, who is stepping down as mayor at the end of this year after 12 years, said Burkhart was his mentor.

“I met with him several times for breakfast and picked his brain for what he did right and what he did wrong and just how he ran the office,” Luedeman said.

He said he found Burkhart’s advice helpful and that he has always had a lot of respect for John, who was the longest serving mayor in Luedeman’s lifetime.

“In fact, that had something to do with my decision not to run again. I didn’t want to pass John,” Luedeman said. “If it was about Seymour, John was there.”

As mayor, Burkhart often was called upon to marry couples, including Bobbie Hunter.

“He performed my marriage ceremony when my hubby and I got married 27 years ago,” she said. “I’m gonna miss him. He was so caring and happy to serve others. He actually stopped everything he was doing to perform the ceremony. He made my wedding day such a happy day. My condolences to his family.”

Burkhart also made an impression on some of his neighbors, including Jennifer Stogdill-Hinkle.

“He was our neighbor for years on Hickory Hill,” she said. “He always had a smile and a wave. He came to celebrate my father’s 50th at a surprise party for him. A kind soul. He will be greatly missed.”

Richard Meadors said Burkhart was an amazing man.

“His heart for public service extends far beyond what most people saw,” Meadors said. “This man truly epitomized small-town living. I have seen many ugly things in politics at every level. This man was none of those. Whether we agreed on his policies or not, John made every individual in this town feel like they belonged to something special.

“This town is far better for its John Burkharts than it could ever be for any business, celebrity or event to come out of it. The town of Seymour lost one of its biggest fans today. This man genuinely got excited for our community in a way that not many other people did.”

Albert Eldridge agreed with Meadors’ assessment of Burkhart.

“He was a true gentleman,” Eldridge said. “I think that no matter what your background or political leanings, he was more than happy to talk with you and get to know you as a person. He loved this town, and Seymour has lost one of their biggest cheerleaders. My thoughts and prayers go out to Dottie and the rest of the family for their loss.”

As mayor, Burkhart worked closely with Jim Plump, executive director of Jackson County Industrial Development Corp.

“From a business standpoint, John was a great mayor,” Plump said. “He understood manufacturing because that was his background. When we would travel domestically or internationally, he could talk the talk.”

Plump said the owners of some of the firms he was dealing with really felt comfortable knowing that Burkhart understood their needs.

From a personal standpoint, Plump said he enjoyed the side excursions he and John took on business trips overseas, such as the weekend they traveled to Omaha Beach at Normandy and Bastogne where the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II.

“He was really into that kind of history, and I really, really appreciated that,” Plump said. “Those are great memories. I will always remember that trip. John was a special guy.”

Burkhart worked as historian and office specialist at the Jackson County Visitor Center from 2011 through 2019. For a brief period, he served as interim executive director.

Arann Banks, the center’s current executive director, said John was a caring and dedicated public servant, not just from his time of leading the city but with every initiative he pursued throughout his lifetime.

“His work was always for others, even if he didn’t know the person,” she said. “John had so much to offer and give this community, and that is exactly what he did. John was a wonderful leader, mentor, visionary and above all else, one of the best friends anyone could have. He will be dearly missed, and his legacy will have a lasting impact for generations to come.”

A memorial, including John’s office chair and portrait, has been placed in the visitor center lobby and will remain until after his funeral services conclude. People may stop by the center and leave a memory of Burkhart there.


John Steele Burkhart

July 16, 1939, to Dec. 13, 2019

Education: Shields High School graduate

Occupation: Retired from Cummins Engine Co. after 31 years of service and three-term Seymour mayor from 1990 to 2003

Religious: Member of First United Methodist Church in Seymour

Organizations: President of Schneck Medical Center Foundation board of directors; member of Jackson County chapter of the American Red Cross, Sertoma Club of Jackson County, Seymour Elks Lodge 462, Seymour Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie 655, Habitat for Humanity of Jackson County and Jackson Lodge 146 and Devol Lodge 766 Free and Accepted Order of Masons; director emeritus of the Boys and Girls Club of Seymour

Also: John enjoyed his family, fishing, golf and church


Here are some other comments about the passing of former Seymour Mayor John Burkhart:

“I worked for him in the 2000s. He was a great man. He was always Mr. Mayor to me.”

Debbie Hackman

“He was a great man. Always enjoyed talking with him. I had the pleasure of volunteering with him for the VITA tax program.”

Linda Hofer

“When I was in peewee baseball, our coaches told us the mayor was coming to the game to give us a trophy. When I met him at the game, I asked him if he was the mayor of peewee. He loved it. My parents and I called him that for the next 20-plus years every time we saw him. He was always so kind to me.”

Michael Goodpaster

“Awwwww, so sad. I remember when he was elected mayor, he had given my dad a job as janitor when city hall and the police station were in the same building. He had been my dad’s supervisor at Cummins, so the saying of treat all people from the CEO to the janitor the same always made me think of him. Prayers to his family.”

Michelle Hallett

“I had the privilege of serving with John on the Schneck Foundation board for the past 12 years. John served as president of that board for many years. John loved the people in this community and always strived to make it a better place to live, work and raise a family. Well done, John. You will be missed.”

Laura Kirtley

“I could go on and on. John had a servant’s heart. I was privileged to witness this firsthand working alongside him on many occasions, most recently through the Schneck Foundation board. His Christian faith was strong, and he demonstrated his faith through his community service and dedication to family. A smile was often the first thing you saw, followed by a sincere greeting and usually accompanied by a funny story and belly laugh. Job well done, John! His earthly presence will be missed.”

Rexanne Ude

“I met John while we were AmeriCorps members. He always had a smile to share and had a way of making you feel like you just met your best friend. John loved his community and felt it was an honor to have served it as mayor and then as a VITA volunteer, serving a chili dinner at the Community Diner and so many other ways. His smile and servant spirit will be missed.”

Bonita Dobbs

“I served on the board of the Jackson County chapter of the American Red Cross with ‘his honor.’ He knew so many people and could find the right help — both physical and financial — the chapter needed. I learned so much from him, especially how to win people over with a smile and a handshake.”

Betty Baute

“Just heartbreaking news. He was such a good man and instrumental in Anchor House acquiring the main building they are in as well as managed all the volunteers during the apartment renovation. His community involvement was commendable, and he will be sorely missed. My thoughts and prayers to his family.”

Deb Bedwell

“Yes, I agree with everyone’s comments above. John was one of those that lit up the room and always had a warm smile and congenial greeting for you when you saw him. I worked with him when I was at the chamber and he was mayor, and he was always very delightful. And as Rexanne said, had a servant’s heart, John, you will be missed.”

Gerri Smith

“I love reading all of these comments on one of my favorite Seymour Owls. He used to live across the street from me and served the library as an AmeriCorps members all three years we had those positions. That was at the same time he worked at Home Depot and the visitor center. Even with his illness, he still worked part time at the visitor center and served as a Seymour Elks Lodge trustee.”

Julia Aker

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