After a lifetime of public service , Dr. Beurt R. SerVaas was called to “final duty” on February 2, 2014. Son of Beurt Hans and Lela Etta (nee Neff) SerVaas, Dr. SerVaas was born in Indianapolis on May 7, 1919.
A 1937 graduate of Shortridge High School, Dr. SerVaas was named to the high honor roll for all four years. At 15, he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. Sixty years later the national Scouting organization honored him as a Distinguished Eagle Scout. He continued to serve scouting and was named one of Indiana’s most distinguished scouts of the past 100 years. He obtained an amateur radio license from the Federal Communications Commission, also at 15, and to generations of amateur radio operators thereafter he was known as W9WVO.
Although awarded a scholarship to Indiana University, SerVaas lacked funds to live on the Bloomington campus, so he took a janitorial job at the Indianapolis IU Extension Division while carrying a full load of science classes. He needed to learn Spanish to qualify for jobs in Argentina, so SerVaas, with a $35 loan from his Grandfather Neff, hitchhiked to Mexico City and enrolled at the University of Mexico.
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, SerVaas returned home to study at IU, graduating in May 1941 with a degree in chemistry, history, and Spanish. He accepted a position at Shortridge High School where he taught chemistry and Spanish, and commuted to Purdue University as a DuPont scholar to complete post-graduate work in chemistry.
Recruited by the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS, now known as the CIA), SerVaas served in the China theatre in World War II as a naval officer commanding a group of 15 men. The group flew from a small airbase in India and jumped into the outback of southwestern China with only a rucksack filled with survival gear, weapons, and a radio transceiver–the only link to the American command. Their mission was to disrupt Japanese river supply lines, train Chinese troops, and work with a newly formed OSS group to establish intelligence resources essential in preparing for the invasion of the Japanese mainland.
As the war in China ebbed, SerVaas was assigned a potential suicide mission still legendary in the intelligence community. The American command in China sent SerVaas, alone and armed only with cyanide suicide pills, to the heavily fortified Japanese garrison on Formosa (Taiwan) with a surrender demand. Successful in the mission, SerVaas received a battlefield commission to Navy Lieutenant, the Bronze Star, and was invited to return to Taiwan with Chinese and American officials to witness the Japanese surrender ceremony.
Ten years after the war, SerVaas was invited back to Taiwan to receive the Chiang Kai-shek Medal of Honor. Later, Taipei city officials, urged by SerVaas, formed a sister city alliance with Indianapolis, a partnership still working for the economic and cultural benefit of both populations.
Using $5,600 he saved during his long war years, SerVaas bought a four-person electroplating company on the eastside of Indianapolis. A fan of a particularly effective cleanser/polish he used on his plated metals, SerVaas then purchased Bar Keepers Friend from the Gisler family in the late 1950s.
Once established as an entrepreneur, SerVaas, known as the “business doctor,” continued to purchase and aid in the recovery of plants that manufactured school buses, truck engines, food machinery, chemicals, auto parts, pharmaceuticals, and magazines. His initiation into heavy manufacturing came when he took North Vernon Forge out of bankruptcy, and eventually acquired additional plants in Michigan, east Chicago, and Ohio.
SerVaas bought control of Bridgeport Brass from absentee owners and saved more than 1,000 jobs for Indianapolis. Later, at the urging of Mayor Bill Hudnut, he “rescued” historic downtown Uniroyal Rubber Company, saving another 600 jobs. SerVaas also purchased struggling Franklin Power in Franklin, Indiana. With the purchase of the then-bankrupt Curtis Publishing Company, SerVaas brought the famed magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, to Indianapolis from Philadelphia.
His business interests were international in scope with operations in Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Italy, Poland and the UK. In Poland, he built the first color TV manufacturing plant in Eastern Europe, prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain.
With a doctorate in Medical Science, SerVaas served as chairman of the Governor’s Indiana State Commission on Medical Education. The group brought together forces for the implementation of SerVaas’s plan for medical school reorganization, which passed the Indiana General Assembly without one dissenting vote.
SerVaas later became chairman of the original State Commission for Higher Education where, with the partnership of IU President John Ryan, he helped plan for the development of IUPUI. He also served on the Indiana State Board of Health’s board of directors.
Always a proponent for healthy lifestyles, Dr. SerVaas was one of the founders of the National Institute for Fitness and Sport (NIFS). As its early chairman of the board, he helped raise $12 million from the city, state, and the Lilly Endowment for the institute’s creation bordering White River State Park.
After Dr. SerVaas lost a kidney in surgery, he searched for a better way to relieve such suffering. He found a German instrument which shatters kidney stones with sound waves, allowing out-patient operations at a very reasonable cost and under local anesthetic. Naming the instrument a Lithotripter, SerVaas helped fund the cost of bringing it to Methodist Hospital where, still today, it relieves kidney stone suffering with its innovative technology.
Dr. SerVaas often told how his native city was nicknamed “India-noplace” or “Naptown.” During the 11 years of the Depression, no new buildings were erected; banks failed, and the city was gray, dirty, and somewhat desolate. After his return from the war, he was discouraged to see that not much had improved. He entered public service to help bring about a vision of change. In 1962, SerVaas was elected to the Marion County Council where he served as a member for four years, vice president for five years, and president of the subsequent City-County Council for 32 years. Remarkably, in all 41 years of leadership, he never missed a council meeting in spite of travel to his many worldwide business interests.
SerVaas loved problem solving, and the city he served offered innumerable opportunities for his efforts, always within the framework of study and research. First among the governing challenges he faced was increasing the city tax base to help rebuild the dreary downtown. He conceived the model of Uni-Gov, a county-wide restructuring which was enacted–under the leadership of Mayor Richard Lugar– by the General Assembly in 1967. The visionary form of government helped propel Indianapolis to national recognition as a clean, safe, exciting, and prosperous place to live and work.
His support for the Indy Greenways was instrumental in the eventual development of a county-wide system. He took an avid interest in neighborhood organizations and helped fund improvements at Holliday Park and the purchase of the Juan Solomon Park addition. He believed in and supported comprehensive land-use planning, initiated the upgrade of Monument Circle, and played a major role in bringing the Colts to Indianapolis.
Decorated World War II China theatre combat officer; family patriarch; business, political, and civic leader; advocate for healthy living; advisor, mentor, and friend of national and international leaders, Dr. Beurt R. SerVaas received many citations and honors. Recipient of honorary degrees from four institutions of higher learning; induction into the Central Indiana Business, IU Alumni and Indianapolis Public Schools Halls of Fame; named Sagamore of the Wabash by four Indiana governors; and having the City-County Building’s auditorium designated as the Dr. Beurt R. SerVaas Public Assembly Room are some of the recognitions he was awarded. He was especially pleased to receive the Horatio Alger National Award in Detroit in 1980–the honor recognizes community leaders who demonstrate remarkable achievements through honesty, hard work, self-reliance, and perseverance over adversity.
Dr. Beurt R. SerVaas was predeceased by his parents and brother William. Surviving are sister Lela Williams; wife Cory Synhorst SerVaas; children Eric (Marcia), Joan (Larry Roan), Paul (Marsha), Kristin (William Loomis), Amy (Jeff Riesmeyer); special assistant and great nephew Hans; 22 grandchildren, and two great-granddaughters.
The funeral service is at 3p.m. Saturday, February 8, 2014 at Second Presbyterian Church, 7700 N. Meridian Street, Meridian Hills, IN 46260 with calling there from 1p.m. until service time. Burial follows immediately at Washington Park North located at 2706 Kessler Blvd. West Drive, Indianapolis, IN 46228. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made in Dr. SerVaas’s honor to the Scottish Rite Cathedral Foundation, Boy Scouts of America, Indianapolis Humane Society, or National Institute for Fitness and Sport.