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  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Ian Rolland, pictured last year, died Saturday at 84. Rolland was vital in many social and civic programs and development projects in the city.

Sunday, July 02, 2017 1:00 am

City loses 'major player'

Businessman, philanthropist Ian Rolland dies at 84

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

Ian Rolland, a man who leveraged his corporate standing to effect great social change and civic and downtown development in Fort Wayne, died Saturday morning. He was 84.

Rolland, an actuary who worked his way up to become the CEO of Lincoln National Corp. and a chairman of Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, was instrumental in building the new Fort Wayne Museum of Art and the creation of Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne. He also chaired the fundraising committee for Headwaters Park, transforming 30 acres of brownfield and floodplain into a downtown park and festival plaza.

He was involved in founding the East Wayne Street Center and Timothy L. Johnson Academy, as well as the creation of Lincoln Life Improved Housing Inc., a Lincoln National subsidiary for rehabbing residential housing.

“He was a major player in everything that went on in Fort Wayne, from the time I started practicing law in 1973 to the end of my 12 years as mayor in 2000,” former Fort Wayne mayor Paul Helmke recalled. “The arts, educational issues, the parks, downtown development, integration, inclusivity in the community – almost everything that came up, Ian wanted to play a role in.”

During his tenure, Helmke's wish was to get Headwaters Park off the ground. The idea had been around for years and public money was available to acquire the land, but he needed the private sector to contribute. Rolland stepped up and raised $9.6 million in private donations.

Rolland was born in 1933, the son of Scottish immigrants, and graduated from North Side High School in 1951. He majored in math at DePauw University and got a post-graduate degree at the University of Michigan.

He believed so much in the public school system that he was motivated to lead efforts to integrate Fort Wayne Community Schools in the mid-1980s. The magnet school system and districtwide school choice were instituted after Rolland personally financed a lawsuit to desegregate the schools.

“The observation was made, and those who were allied with me, was there had to be the ability on the part of the kids, mainly black kids who were getting a bad shake in Fort Wayne public schools, to give them a new lease on life,” Rolland said in a Journal Gazette article last summer.

The school district's transformation has kept the schools strong in an era where charter schools have prevailed in other urban areas, said Graham Richards, Fort Wayne mayor from 2000 to 2008. “His leadership was absolutely critical,” even to the point of fielding like-minded school board candidates.

Why Rolland was so interested in equality has to do with the way he was brought up, as well as the influence of his wife, Mimi, Richards said. Some of his passionate advocacy for racial equality came from his membership at the Crescent Avenue Evangelical United Brethren Church, now a United Methodist Church.

“(Mimi) was very engaged in the community and the church. She saw people in Fort Wayne who were invisible to many, who were suffering and (she) challenged that this was not right and it needed to be addressed,” Richards said.

Rolland transformed a vacant building on East Wayne Street into a center for practical help and understanding. The East Wayne Street Center became the first provider for Head Start in Allen County, said Joe Jordan, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne.

“He would drive through that area on his way home,” said Jordan, who met Rolland when Jordan interviewed and was hired as the executive director for the center in 1997. “He wanted to start something. Back then, in 1964-65, that specific area was plagued with drugs and prostitution and those kind of things. There were a lot of kids in the area, and he wanted to create a safe haven for the kids.”  

The vacant building at the corner of East Wayne and Francis streets blossomed into a full-service organization offering family literacy, adult education, Head Start, home repair programs, counseling, all in all, 12 programs, Jordan said.

Jordan said he visited Rolland a couple of days ago after Mimi called and asked him to come say goodbye.

“He's my idol,” Jordan said. “He's someone that represents what's right in humanity. In every phase of his life, he demonstrated what a true servant leader and a Christian-based person should be like.

“I had a chance to tell Ian I loved him. I thanked him for all he's done for mankind, for the legacy of love he's done for our community.”

When Larry Rowland first met Rolland, it was in the Lincoln Life cafeteria. Rolland had a habit of sitting down at the table with his employees. Rowland only knew his boss from recruiting material and was surprised when he had an impromptu lunch with him on his first day.

“He was the most uncommon common guy you would have ever met in your life,” said Rowland who has been a friend for 30 years. “People who worked for Ian would absolutely go to war for that man.”

Many people aren't aware of his corporate accomplishments in business, Rowland said. By 1986, about of third of Lincoln's revenues came from individual life insurance sales, a third from employee benefits and another third from property-casualty insurance, a stated goal of Rolland's in 1980.

“Ian Rolland was among the most talented businessmen Indiana has ever been able to call its own,” wrote Gov. Eric Holcomb in a statement Saturday. “His caring and generous spirit, his community leadership, and his work for educational equality define true civic virtue.”

He may be better-known for his groundbreaking embrace of same-sex benefits offered to his employees. “He was a man so far ahead of his time,” said Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, “he took on causes that even today we struggle with.”

Henry said he got to know Rolland in the early 1980s, when he was looking to offer life insurance policies to city and rural employees at the company where he worked and wanted to see if he could pool the policies for a discount. He called Lincoln and figured he'd talk to a sales agent.

“Guess who said they would talk to me?” Henry asked. “Ian Rolland!”

Henry said he admired Rolland for taking on issues even when they were risky.

Jordan agreed. “I don't think there's anybody who's impacted this community like Ian Rolland.”

Details on Rolland's memorial and funeral services have not been released as of publication.

jduffy@jg.net