• Volume 14    Number 1    Winter 2004

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Earl Butz at 94 has mellowed – a little


Earl Butz

"I understood public relations and always maintained a high profile. I made lots of talks and challenged lots of people."


Time has softened the character of man whom no one is neutral about. But there’s still a twinkle in his eye, a sense of humor and a bit of teacher left in his soul.

At 94 years of age, Earl Lauer Butz still goes to his Purdue University office every day. It’s a habit, he says.

On the walls of his office hang memories: A photo of Butz with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office; another of Butz in Air Force One, talking with a pipe-smoking Gerald Ford; and yet another, of Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev in his Moscow office signing an agreement, with Butz near his side.

Those were heady times for an Indiana farm boy. Butz, raised on a farm in Albion, Ind., served as secretary of agriculture in the 1970s under two U.S. presidents.

“Nixon was kind of a loner, he had a cold personality,” Butz reflects. “Ford was warm and friendly. He wouldn’t embarrass a Cabinet member. The difference was you worked for Nixon, and with Ford.”

Despite Nixon’s personality flaws, Butz was proud to be asked to speak at his funeral. “Nixon emerged as a great statesmen. While he was president, it was popular to be a Nixon hater.”

Butz, not without his own detractors, may feel some kinship with the president forced out of office. He himself left the United States Department of Agriculture in 1976 after intense criticism for an insensitive joke he told reporters.

Butz, who describes himself as having the gift of gab, acknowledges his sometimes unfortunate choice of words. “Sometimes my quotes may be too colorful,” he says.

But as he sits in his office and reflects on his past, Butz claims he has no regrets. “No, I try not to be a negative thinker,” he says.

Illustration provided
Earl Butz has been a part of Purdue University's College of Agriculture for parts of the last nine decades, beginning with his undergraduate days in the late 1920's.

His talent for communicating was developed as a student at Purdue when he was an editor for The Exponent, the student newspaper. He says it wasn’t uncommon for him to be called into President Edward Elliott’s office over things that appeared in print. “I challenged things that needed to be challenged at Purdue,” he says with pride.

The experience served him well over the years. Butz credits good communication skills and the ability to sell his ideas for his rise from faculty member to Purdue dean of agriculture to presidential cabinet member.

He also knew the value of staying out in front. “I understood public relations and always maintained a high profile,” he says. “I made lots of talks and challenged lots of people.”

Some of his stands were not always popular. Butz told farmers that agriculture had to change, but he was on their side. While he disagreed with some over the methods of change, he didn’t consider himself disloyal. Butz supported the market system as the way of assuring an abundance of high-quailty food and fiber. He also worked to limit federal encroachment into farming. He saw family farms disappearing, but promoted the value of agriculture to this country.

Folks have strong opinions about this man and his tough stands. Butz shows off bumper stickers from Nixon’s second presidential campaign. Messages like, “Re-elect Nixon or lose your Butz” show the fierce allegiance many had for the outspoken head of the USDA.

Butz says time has shown that he was right about the need for changes in agriculture, even if his fortune-telling skills weren’t 20/20.

“I was a stubborn cuss, and I made some mistakes,” he says. “But you’ve got to make choices, and you’re not going to be right all the time.”

Of all the jobs he has had over his lifetime, he says the one he enjoyed the most was teacher. “Teaching was the most pleasant thing I did. It’s an honor to influence students, and the opportunity to teach is a tremendous thing,” he says. “It still makes my day when I walk across campus and someone tells me how much I may have influenced their life. I just hope it was for good.”

Among his past students are former politicians Sen. Birch Bayh and gubernatorial candidate Wayne Townsend, both Democrats. In remembering them, this staunch Republican admits that you can’t influence everything.

Among those he did influence is Wally Tyner, former head of Purdue’s Department of Agricultural Economics, a post Butz also held at one time. “When I became department head, I didn’t really know Earl that well,” Tyner says.

Having a former U.S. secretary of agriculture among his faculty could have been a daunting experience. Instead, Tyner says, it was an encouragement. “I was pleased and surprised when a number of times he offered to take me to important meetings around the state and introduce me to key leaders. He was always helpful and supportive, without being intrusive.

“Sometimes after a difficult faculty meeting, he would come up and say something like ‘True leadership is not easy, but you understand what makes an excellent leader, and you execute it well.’ You can imagine how good that made me feel, coming from Earl Butz.”

While being a good friend, Butz also surprised Tyner by becoming a great benefactor as well.

“One day Earl asked me to come down to his office for a moment. I had no idea why, and when I sat down, he told me he wanted to give the department $1 million. I nearly fell out of the chair,” Tyner recalls.

The gift came with no strings attached. While Butz did not request any ceremony or publicity, Tyner says he wanted to make sure that happened, “so that others would know the kind and generous Earl Butz that I know.”

Since that gift was given in 1999, its value has grown to nearly $1.2 million, a figure pointed out by Butz, who as an economist naturally keeps track of his investment.

Sitting in his quiet quarters, Butz’s soft-spoken and modest demeanor shows little hint of the man who was once a formidable force for agriculture.

His wife and “great partner” Mary Emma has passed away, taking some of the joy out of his life. But Butz’s humor resurfaces as he talks about his sons.

My boys — one is in California and the other in Washington, D.C. — they couldn’t get farther apart,” he chuckles. He goes on to say he has six grandchildren. Are there any great-grandchildren? “They’re all great,” he says with a smile.

Contact Butz at ebutz@purdue.edu

Earl Butz Photo Gallery