(Jul. 25, 1908–Aug. 25, 1999). Born in Tipton, Indiana, Burkhart moved with his family to Texas during his father’s battle with tuberculosis. When his father’s health failed, he returned to his hometown and was taken in by his grandfather. He graduated from Tipton High School at the age of 15 and entered DePauw University on a Rector Scholarship, majoring in political science and history. After graduation, he returned to help with the family farm. For a short time, he served as editor of the Tipton Daily Tribune. He also launched his first business, a Skelgas franchise that he expanded with appliances and called the Wife Saving Store. The business failed in the Great Depression, so he moved to Indianapolis, taking a job selling insurance on commission for New York Life Insurance Company to repay his loans.

Burkhart and Frank Moore, a DePauw colleague, proposed to national insurer New York Life a model of selling insurance to college students across the country. After being rejected, they approached Lincoln National Insurance Company, then headquartered in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which embraced the idea. By the time the U.S. entered World War II, Burkhart’s partnership was Lincoln’s largest agency. However, it was soon out of business because all the agents were reserve officers who were called up for active duty. Burkhart’s poor vision led to an assignment to manage a factory in Milwaukee that made sextants for the Navy.

After the war, Burkhart formed College Life Insurance Company and received approval from the Indiana Insurance Commissioner on July 25, 1946, his 38th birthday. Later, he began University Life Insurance Company of America, with funding and office space in Indianapolis provided by Felix McWhirter at Peoples Bank. Burkhart typed all policies himself. Based on the future earning capacity of college graduates and seeing their need for insurance coverage, the businesses focused on marketing to college seniors and alumni.

As business grew, Burkhart commissioned an $85 million commercial and residential development in northwest Indianapolis. The design of College Park and North Willow Farms envisioned high-rise and garden apartments, single-family homes, townhouses, a shopping center, and a 110-acre office complex—at that time the “largest proposed development in the history of Marion County.”

Three large the pyramids that were erected from 1967-1972 and served as headquarters for College Life dominated the development. Noted architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo designed the Pyramids featuring great expanses of concrete and glass. They are among Roche’s best works and contributed to his receiving the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of architecture. The insurance businesses flourished and were sold in 1979.

Concerned that businesses and businesspeople needed more thorough news coverage than the two daily local newspapers provided, in May 1980 Burkhart founded the Indianapolis Business Journal with a longtime friend from DePauw, Mark Vittert. The partners expanded business weeklies in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Baltimore before selling the publications in 1986.

Active in Indianapolis public and civic affairs, Burkhart served on and chaired many prestigious boards, including the local, state, and national chambers of commerce and the Capital Improvements Board. He led a major campaign for DePauw University.

He also chaired the Marion County Republican Action Committee (RAC), a citizens’ group that reformed the party by running a competing slate of candidates for precinct and Indiana General Assembly positions in the 1966 primary election. They succeeded in electing a diverse group that included William Doyle Ruckleshaus (who became the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the acting director of the FBI, and later, as deputy attorney general, resigned in the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” under Richard Nixon). Also included in the delegation were several women, as well as Ray Province Crowe, famed Crispus Attucks High School basketball coach and athletic director; Dr. Ned Lamkin (who served as majority leader); and John Mutz (who later served as lieutenant governor). In the 1967 municipal elections, the RAC supported Richard G. Lugar as mayor and captured a majority of seats on the city and county councils.

Under the leadership of Burkhart and Beurt SerVaas, the County Council president, meetings began—often in Burkhart’s home—to discuss ways to streamline city and county government. There were numerous governmental and taxing authorities, many of which were not accountable to the mayor or councils. This fragmentation of power and accountability had been publicly debated for several years. Previous efforts by Democrat majorities in the General Assembly to streamline city and county government had failed.

In 1968 after Republicans won statewide races for governor and majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, forces were aligned for passage of the Unigov legislation, which unified local government in Marion County under one mayor and a combined City-County Council. While admittedly imperfect from the beginning, Unigov laid the foundation for significant growth of Indianapolis under mayors in decades that followed.

In addition to Burkhart’s business, civic, and political pursuits, he continued to expand College Life Insurance Company’s services to college students. He began laying the groundwork for another enterprise that would enable millions of individuals to access the immediate and long-term opportunities of higher education far into the future.

The idea of making loans to college students from a nongovernmental, voluntary association appealed to Burkhart as did the concept of teaching students the proper use of credit. Convinced that an umbrella organization should be formed under which each state could have its own college loan fund, on July 8, 1960, Burkhart and two others incorporated United Student Aid Funds as a nonprofit dedicated to serving educational purposes. The first loan was made in February 1961, and by 1964 USA Funds had deposits from 600 colleges, contracts with 4,000 banks, and annual loan disbursements of $10 million.

Passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965 encouraged states to have nonprofit or state agencies with capacity to cover students’ financial needs, with seed funding available from the federal government. At this time, USA Funds already administered student loans in 29 states, either directly or through contracts. Burkhart and others committed to the independent sector opposed government involvement. USA Funds, therefore, competed against and had conflicts with the U.S. Department of Education but finally signed a direct federal contract in 1977. Burkhart continued serving on the USA Funds board until the early 1980s.

By the 1990s, USA Funds was one of several organizations under the USA Group nonprofit umbrella. The enterprise processed one-third of all student loan guarantees in the U.S. and touched every part of a student loan from origination at the college, to electronic funds transfers, collections, and secondary market services.

Burkhart’s vision endowed $3 billion for educational and other philanthropic purposes. In 2000, soon after his death, USA Group’s board of directors sold its assets. The sale yielded proceeds of $400 million in cash and $370 million in Sallie Mae stock. The board used this money to endow a new mission the Lumina Foundation for Education. USA Funds spun off under separate management and eventually morphed into Strada Education Network, which now has more than $1.6 billion in assets it uses to strengthen connections between education and employment.   

Revised April 2021

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