The Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery guards the iconic memorial with silent discipline and reverence. Since 1937 — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — they have demonstrated their service to our country, the Unknowns entombed, as well as all who have served in the military.
How does a young man from Valparaiso, Indiana, become one of the chosen few who have guarded the Tomb and been awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge for his service? What brought him back home to serve the city of Valparaiso and, now, all of Northwest Indiana?
That’s the story of Bill Hanna ’11 J.D.
Bill felt compelled to enlist in the Army after graduating from Morgan Township High School. In what may have been a fortuitous turn of events, shortly before he enlisted, his mother and grandmother visited his uncle’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery and recorded the Changing of the Guard ceremony. He recalls his grandmother saying, “Wouldn’t that be something if you became one of those guys?”
And that’s what happened. After completing Airborne School at Ft. Benning, a recruiter for the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” inquired about Bill’s interest. From an initial list of 1,200 soldiers who were considered, about a dozen were selected for the orientation program in Washington, D.C.
Bill was initially assigned to the Presidential Marching Platoon, a specialty platoon within the Old Guard that serves as escorts to the president and conducts military ceremonies in and around Washington. The platoon’s duties include military funeral escorts at Arlington National Cemetery. Bill’s first event as a member was the funeral of former Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, who died in a plane crash in Croatia in April 1998. With former President Bill Clinton and other leaders in attendance, Bill says, “It was an out-of-body experience for a kid from Valpo.”
Bill was eligible to try out for the Tomb Guard training program — a long and arduous nine-month process with a 30% success rate. Twenty-three soldiers started alongside Bill; three graduated and served as Tomb Guards. After serving for nine months, those who receive this honor are eligible for the Army’s least-awarded and hardest-to-earn qualification decoration: the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. Since its creation in 1958, fewer than 700 have been awarded. Bill Hanna is No. 441.
After four years of service in the Army (1995–1999), including two and a half years at the Tomb — one and a half as a Sentinel and one year running the training and selection program — Bill and his wife, Christian, decided it was time to return to civilian life. “I was blessed to be there,” he says. “It was the experience of a lifetime.”
Their path back to Valparaiso included a brief detour to Colorado, where Bill completed a bachelor’s degree at Colorado Christian University. During a visit back to Valparaiso in 2002 and a visit to City Hall, former Mayor David Butterfield ’71 J.D. offered Bill a position in his administration.
Two years later, Jon Costas ’89 J.D., ’19H was elected mayor, and Bill continued to serve in leadership positions in the city through 2009. During his seven years he served as economic development director and city manager (deputy mayor). It was also during this time that the city launched significant redevelopment efforts that spearheaded the dynamic downtown area, including Central Park Plaza and a variety of shops and restaurants.
Bill believes working together was the key to completing those projects, as well as Porter’s Vale Shopping Center, East Gate, and the Vale Park Road extension between the post office and Valparaiso High School.
“At the end of the day it is a collaborative effort,” he says. “It’s like a mosaic, everyone has a piece and the vision pulls them together.” He says he learned that focusing on a particular outcome doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
It was also during his employment with the city that Bill decided to pursue a law degree at Valpo.
“Everyone around me was a graduate of the Valparaiso University Law School, so it seemed like the thing to do,” he said. “Mayors Jon Costas and Dave Butterfield were graduates and Professors Bruce Berner and David Hollenbeck spent a lot of time at City Hall.”
We developed a coalition around the idea that by connecting ourselves to the third largest economy in the country we could add diversity economically, and not just be dependent on industry. We didn’t want to tie ourselves wholly to Chicago but did want to take advantage of the employment availability.
Bill’s seven years of public service garnered him an opportunity to expand his economic development work to the wider footprint of Northwest Indiana, when then-Governor Mitch Daniels, and the Regional Development Authority (RDA) Board of Directors, asked him to serve as president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana RDA. Interestingly, current Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, who was on Daniels’ staff at the time, placed the call to Bill. The relationship with Holcomb and others in the Statehouse has been important to the projects he has delivered. Leading the RDA from 2010–2021, Bill played a major role in shaping some of Northwest Indiana’s largest infrastructure and economic development projects.
All of the initiatives were born from an economic development plan fully focused on creating an integrated suburb of Chicago.
“Sometimes visions are overwhelming or threatening,” Bill says. “But if you have a project to facilitate the vision, it becomes more tangible.”
With that in mind, the main focus of the initiatives has been the South Shore Railroad expansion.
“I was not by myself on the benefits the expansion would create,” he adds. “We developed a coalition around the idea that by connecting ourselves to the third largest economy in the country we could add diversity economically, and not just be dependent on industry. We didn’t want to tie ourselves wholly to Chicago but did want to take advantage of the employment availability.”
Soon after the funding was appropriated for the South Shore expansion, Bill received a call from Bruce White, the founder of White Lodging, to discuss the vision he had for the future direction of the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation. Thinking he wanted to bounce some ideas around, Bill prepared some thoughts and a few names of people who might take on the leadership role with the foundation. Bill was surprised to hear Bruce say, “I want you to do this. We could have a big impact on Northwest Indiana.”
Sadly, about two years after Bill accepted the position of executive director of the foundation, Bruce White passed away. The White family and Bruce’s vision continue to drive the foundation, which has established a strong commitment to the community’s total health and wellness to include educational and economic development. And that focus continues under Bill’s leadership, with a strategic and partnership-based approach. He believes that an important part of his job is to maximize the strategic impact of what they do.
“The White family is committed to Northwest Indiana,” Bill says. “Dean loved it, and Bruce loved it. What I really like about the foundation, no matter the project, is that we are thinking about the community from a human aspect. What is ROI when you are not driven by profit? It is human equity.”
Bill Hanna’s life of service started here and it continues here. Quite a journey for that young man from Valparaiso.