Former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, one of Indiana’s most famous native sons and author of two amendments to the U.S. Constitution, died early Thursday at the age of 91.
The three-term Democratic U.S. senator died shortly after midnight surrounded by family at his home in Easton, Maryland, the family said. Cause of death was pneumonia.
Bayh was authored the 25th Amendment, which established presidential succession, and the 26th Amendment, which set the voting age at 18.
A strong advocate for women’s rights, he also was the author of Title IX, which in 1972 for the first time prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in the classroom and on the athletic field.
“You’re not exactly asking anybody to be a profile in courage when you’re asking them to support a law that benefits so many people,” Bayh said in a 2012 interview. “Still, we had no idea just how far it would go.”
Bayh was a leading sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have barred discrimination on the basis of gender. It passed Congress but failed to win approval from two-thirds of the states.
He led an effort in 1969-70 for an amendment that would have made the popular vote, not the Electoral College, the deciding mechanism by which the president is elected.
The measure easily cleared the House, and it was thought to be only a handful of votes short in the Senate. But, as Bayh noted, it never was called to the Senate floor for a full vote.
Bayh co-sponsored the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Later, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he led successful efforts to defeat President Richard Nixon’s nominations of two controversial judges, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, to the Supreme Court.
Bayh was the father of former Indiana governor and former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh.
Bayh was preceded in death by his first wife, Marvella Hern Bayh. She died of breast cancer in 1979. He married Katherine “Kitty” Halpin in 1981.
She survives, as do his sons Evan (Birch Evan Bayh III) and Christopher J. Bayh, an attorney and partner at Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis, as well as four grandchildren.
“Birch Bayh was a trailblazer who dedicated himself to improving the lives of all Hoosiers,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said in a statement Thursday morning.
Bayh’s work “transformed the country and will live on for years to come,” the governor said.
Holcomb directed public flags across the state to be flown at half-staff. Flags should be flown at half-staff from now until sunset on the day of his funeral, which has not yet been announced.
Said ISU President Deborah Curtis, “The Indiana State family mourns the loss of this incredible leader.”
She noted Bayh and his late wife, Marvella, took classes at ISU in the 1950s and are part of a family connection to the university that spans more than a century. Christopher J. Bayh today serves on the ISU President’s National Advisory Board.
“We are proud that our renowned College of Education carries the Bayh name and stands as a permanent tribute to this legacy and Birch Bayh’s distinguished career,” Curtis said.
YOUNG, RISING STAR
Born in Terre Haute, Birch Bayh also spent time on his grandparents farm in Shirkieville, where he later lived. He went to high school in New Goshen and served in the post-World War II U.S. Army in Germany. An athlete, Bayh was a Golden Gloves boxer and twice tried out for Major League Baseball teams.
While farming, he took classes at Indiana State University and eventually graduated from Purdue University with a degree in agriculture. He later earned a law degree from Indiana University while serving in the Legislature.
He was elected to the Indiana House at the age of 26 and later became, at the time, the youngest speaker of the Indiana House.
At the age of 36, he defeated three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Homer E. Capehart of Washington, Indiana, in the 1962 midterm election.
Bayh would be re-elected to the Senate in 1968 (defeating William D. Ruckelshaus) and in 1974 (defeating Richard Lugar). Bayh was defeated in his bid for a fourth term in 1980 by then-U.S. Rep. Dan Quayle.
Bayh sought his party’s nomination for president in 1976, withdrawing in early March.
‘QUINTESSENTIAL FARM BOY’
Fred Nation served as Birch Bayh’s press secretary from November 1979 through December 1980 and later worked for Evan Bayh. He remains a friend of the Bayh family.
While Nation served as editor of the Terre Haute Spectator from 1974-1979, he wrote stories about Bayh and even went to Iowa to cover the primary when Bayh sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976.
“He was the quintessential Hoosier farm boy,” Nation said. “He had that ‘aw shucks’ manner about him.”
While Bayh is well known for authoring the 25th and 26th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, he told Nation his proudest legislative accomplishment dealt with school re-organization while he served in the Indiana Legislature.
The Indiana School Reorganization Act of 1959 called for each county to develop and implement a reorganization plan. It was passed soon after Sputnik, when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth satellite.
But Bayh also was proud of his work on Title IX. He pursued it because his wife, Marvella, had been denied admission to the University of Virginia based on her sex. “He thought that was wrong,” Nation said.
Describing Bayh, Nation said he could “connect with anyone, whether they liked him or not. He reveled in campaigning and meeting people.”
‘ROCK SOLID INTEGRITY’
Retired Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton remembered Bayh as a great friend and master legislator who brought a new energy and an inclusive style to political campaigns. The two Democrats’ terms overlapped by 16 years, from 1965 to 1981.
“He probably wrote more of the Constitution than any legislator since James Madison,” Hamilton said.
Bayh was inclusive in his way of approaching people. “I don’t think he had any sentiments of any kind of bigotry. He respected all people and was willing to work with all.” The liberal Bayh was good friends with conservative Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, for example.
“Birch had rock solid integrity. He didn’t play political games with people; he didn’t try to pull the wool over your eyes. He was very straightforward.”
‘SERVE HOOSIERS AND THE NATION’
Nancy Papas worked as a summer intern in Bayh’s Washington office in 1965 before becoming a staffer in 1967.
“One of my first days in the office, the legislative director told me not to do anything that I wouldn’t want to see splashed across the front age headlines of the newspaper. He said we were there to serve Hoosiers and the nation and not ourselves. I took that to heart.”
She added, “I was surprised and thrilled to see that the office manager was a woman. So was the person in charge of the Senator’s schedule, as well as the person who was my immediate supervisor in the legislative department,” she said.
“Wow – my father and mother had always told me women could do anything, but I’d had my doubts. Birch Bayh’s example made me a believer. So his sponsorship of the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX seemed a natural thing for him to do.”
Vigo County Councilwoman Vicki Weger said she recalls knowing Bayh — and campaigning for him — from the time she was a little girl.
Her mom, Docie, worked at the Farm Bureau when Bayh was a farmer. When Bayh decided to run for the Legislature, her entire family joined the effort.
“We always were Bayh backers,” she said.
For all his stature, Bayh remained himself, she said, recalling how he’d sit with her family, play the guitar and sing after campaign rallies. He was a good singer, she recalled, and among his favorites was “The Green, Green Grass of Home.”
— CNHI News Indiana writers Mark Fitton, Sue Loughlin and Dave Taylor contributed to this report.