Birch Bayh, former Indiana senator, Title IX author, dies at 91

Birch Bayh, a farm boy from Terre Haute who would ascend to legislative titan during three terms in the U.S. Senate as the author of two constitutional amendments and a bill that gave women equal opportunity in colleges and universities, died early Thursday of pneumonia, according to a statement from the family. He was 91.

Bayh, the father of two-term senator and Indiana governor Evan Bayh, was remembered by his son, colleagues and friends as a relentless champion of civil rights who left his imprint during the 1960s and 1970s on several pieces of landmark legislation.

Birch Bayh during a 2006 NCAA ceremony to present him with the Gerald R. Ford Award.

“He had a natural sympathy for the underdog and the downtrodden. So that’s why he always tried to champion opportunity and decency for people who are born without a lot of either,” Evan Bayh said. “My father was an extrovert who was devoted to his fellow citizens and trying to make their lives better – and he succeeded. And I can’t imagine a better legacy.”

Bayh grew up on a farm in Terre Haute and served four terms in the Indiana House of Representatives beginning in 1954 before successfully running for U.S. Senate in 1962 at age 34.

That year, the Democrat unseated 18-year incumbent Republican Homer Capehart. He would win re-election against William D. Ruckelshaus in 1968 and Richard Lugar in 1974. He lost his seat in 1980 to Dan Quayle.

Birch Bayh Jr. newly elected US senator from Indiana was welcomed in his home town of Terre Haute, Nov. 1962.  Wife Marvella and son Evan are with him.

Lugar, whose long congressional service beginning in 1977 overlapped with the end of Bayh’s, said as time goes on, Bayh’s achievements will be seen as more significant.

“I agree with historians that he deserves recognition as a constitutional scholar,” Lugar said. “I think in recent years he is being more widely recognized for that.”

Lugar said besides being a “good listener and communicator,” Bayh “was a keen observer of what was happening in the workplace and executive offices and he responded to it.”

In Bayh’s post-Senate life, he taught, practiced law and worked as a lobbyist. He was also involved in the still-ongoing effort to elect the president by popular vote, an outgrowth of his unsuccessful proposed constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College.

In 1976, Bayh sought the Democratic candidacy for president against Jimmy Carter and Morris Udall but dropped out after 4-1/2 months following poor finishes in early primary states.

Real news, brought to you by real Hoosiers.Support our local journalists.

Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, said Bayh’s most enduring legacy might have been the Title IX amendment to the Education Act in 1972, which granted all groups, but especially women, equal access to education opportunities, including sports.

“It had a profound impact on America and opened opportunities for women and other minorities as well,” said Hamilton, a congressman for 34 years and a lifelong friend of the Bayhs. “It was an extraordinary legislative achievement and very lasting.”

Hamilton called Bayh an “iconic figure in Indiana politics” who “put a stamp on legislation as very few legislators ever do.”

Father of 2 amendments, Title IX

Bayh rose quickly in his first year in the upper chamber, assuming the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments after chairman Estes Kefauver died of a heart attack.

Bayh introduced an amendment shortly after the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy that updated the order of succession in the presidency and vice presidency in the case of death, disability or resignation. The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1967.

The 25th Amendment: How it came to be, its possible role today
From Bayh's aide: The unique role of the 25th Amendment

Bayh also authored the 26th Amendment, passed in 1971, which lowered the voting age across the nation from 21 to 18, a subject of hot debate at a time when 18-year-old Americans were being drafted into the Vietnam War. The senator thus became the only member of Congress since the founding fathers to author two constitutional amendments.

Bayh authored the failed Equal Rights Amendment and was considered the “Father of Title IX."

Many people associate Title IX with equality for women’s collegiate sports. But the story behind that legislation had nothing to do with athletics, said Fred Nation, a former press secretary for Birch Bayh and then Evan Bayh, once he became governor of Indiana.

The idea was sparked by a rejection letter that Marvella received from a Virginia university’s graduate program, Nation said. Schools at the time placed quotas on the number of women they accepted each year and the program to which Marvella had applied had already reached that mark.

“So the main intention of the law was to right that wrong,” he said.

Former pro tennis player Billie Jean King praised Bayh's work on Title IX, calling him "an American treasure."

“Birch Bayh was one of the most important Americans of the 20th century,” King, who worked alongside the senator on women’s rights issues, said in a written tribute Thursday. “You simply cannot look at the evolution of equality in our nation without acknowledging the contributions and the commitment Senator Bayh made to securing equal rights and opportunities for every American.”

"Senator Bayh wrote one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation affecting higher education in the latter half of the 20th century,” wrote NCAA president Mark Emmert in 2011. “Indeed, I have suggested to numerous audiences that Title IX is the Magna Carta for women in higher education. It has provided that which had previously been denied — opportunity.”

Throughout his life, Bayh championed individual rights, from civil rights to women’s rights to the right of an 18-year-old to vote. His lifelong effort to abolish the Electoral College stemmed from his belief that the vote of a person in California should count the same as the vote of a person in Indiana.

“If you look at his career, that quest for democracy and equality is a thread that holds it all together,” Nation said.

Senator-elect and Mrs. Bayh visit President John F. Kennedy at the White House on Nov. 16, 1962. Kennedy urged the Hoosier Democrat  "to get good office staff."

The Bayh-Dole Act, civil rights

In addition, the senator authored and co-sponsored with Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, the Bayh-Dole Act that enabled universities and small businesses to take ownership of inventions that came from federally funded research. The 1980 bill motivated universities to take inventions from the lab to the market and resulted in a technology surge.

“Possibly the most inspired piece of legislation to be enacted in America over the past half-century,” wrote the Economist Technology Quarterly in 2002. “This single policy measure helped to reverse America's precipitous slide into industrial irrelevance.”

Bayh helped craft and pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and he was the architect of the groundbreaking Juvenile Justice Act, which required the separation of juveniles from adults in prison and introduced rehabilitation programs for young offenders.

“It was really the first time we had any sort of federal response to the way that the states were treating young people in their custody,” said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

Indianapolis attorney Bill Moreau was an aide for Bayh who worked on energy and environmental issues during his last term in the Senate.

"He amended the Constitution twice and forced open the doors of higher education opportunities to women, counseled presidents and met dozens of heads of state, even the pope," Moreau said, "but he always thought of himself as the farm boy from Shirkieville who was the luckiest man on Earth.

"He was my last living hero."

Bayh also deserves recognition, former aides say, for what he was able to block.

Most notably, he led the successful fight against two of President Richard Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynsworth and George Carswell.

Opposition to Carswell centered on, but was not exclusive to, a hostile civil rights record that included having supported white supremacy in a 1948 speech.

“He saved our Supreme Court from mediocrity and regression, when he beat two Nixon nominees to that court: the first Senate rejection of a nominee since 1930,” said Ron Klain, who got his first Washington job from Bayh and went on to serve as chief of staff for two vice presidents.

In a 2009 interview about the Haynsworth and Carswell nominations, Bayh criticized Clarence Thomas' treatment of Anita Hill during his 1991 confirmation.

"...I wished I were back in the Senate," Bayh said, "because I like to think I wouldn’t have let that son of a gun get on the bench."

Humble origins

Birch Evans Bayh, Jr., was born in Terre Haute on Jan. 22, 1928, the oldest child of two teachers. He spent part of his childhood in suburban Washington, D.C., where his father was director of physical education for the public schools. Bayh was 12 when his mother died of cancer, prompting he and his younger sister to go live with their maternal grandparents on a 450-acre farm in Shirkieville, just west of Terre Haute.

Bayh served in the Army as a military policeman in Germany following World War II, then returned to Indiana to resume his studies at Purdue University, where he earned an agriculture degree and was senior class president, boxing champion and baseball star.

Soon after graduating, Bayh met his first wife, Marvella, at a national speech competition – which she won. The Oklahoma college student was immediately smitten with the “tall, striking young man with the brown curly hair and stubborn cowlick.”

“Birch Bayh had something special – the kind of drive that I had, that I’d seen in no other boy,” Marvella wrote in her 1979 memoir “Marvella: A Personal Journey.”

They married in 1952, residing on the family farm where Bayh expected to make his living. But by 1954, the outgoing Bayh was running for the state legislature.

“My husband was just too gregarious for life in the fields, no matter how much he loved that farm,” Marvella Bayh wrote.

Bayh not only won that race but would become, at age 30, the youngest House speaker in Indiana history.

It was during this time that Bayh made an impact on life in Indiana. He told Nation in 2009 that he counted among his greatest legislative accomplishment the reorganization of schools in the state.

Indiana had more than 800 high schools, many of them small facilities that could not offer a range of courses to their students, schools, in other words, like the one Bayh had attended in New Goshen.

Bayh helped shepherd a measure in the late 1950s to consolidate Indiana’s many smaller school corporations in an effort to help students here keep up academically in the Sputnik Age.

In 1962, Bayh pulled off what Walter Cronkite called the “political upset of the year” by defeating Capehart and joining the U.S. Senate.

“Hey, look him over. He’s your kind of guy. His first name is Birch, his last name is Bayh,” went the campaign jingle, instructing voters how to pronounce the name.

Even President Kennedy took notice.

“Birch, you old miracle maker. How the hell did you do it?” Kennedy asked in a post-election phone call.

The only senator younger than Bayh was Kennedy’s younger brother Edward. The Bayhs and Kennedys became good friends and in 1964, following a vote on the Civil Rights Act, the senators were aboard a small plane that crashed on its way from Washington to Massachusetts. Kennedy was trapped in the wreckage with a broken back, but Bayh and Marvella were less seriously injured and pulled Kennedy from the rubble. The pilot and an aide were killed.

“We’ve all heard adrenaline stories about how a mother can lift a car off a trapped infant. Well, Kennedy was no small guy, and I was able to lug him out of there like a sack of corn under my arm,” Bayh recounted to The Hill when Kennedy died in 2009.

Birch Bayh, a man who listened

Bayh was a doting parent who had an affinity for children, often dressing up as Santa Claus for the neighborhood kids, playing the Big Bad Wolf or making up other games, Evan Bayh said.

“He was always there for me as a child,” Bayh said. “He was just a wonderful role model, someone devoted to his family and his country, with good values and character.”

Former staffers said Bayh’s modest roots and even temperament made him stand out in Washington. He was a fair boss who inspired loyalty and acknowledged hard work, they said.

“A lot of us would smash through a locked door for Birch Bayh if he asked you to do it,” said Joe Allen, who worked for him on the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1977 to 1981. “Birch Bayh was the kind of person who gave you a chance to show what you could do. It wasn’t a stuffy office where, if you didn’t come in with an Ivy League law degree, you weren’t taken seriously.”

Bayh also took time to hear all points of view from constituents, Allen recalled. Once, he stayed after a meeting to speak with every member of an audience who disagreed with him about the pricing of drugs to fight AIDS.

“A lot of politicians would have slunk out of the back door,” Allen said.    

Bayh biographer Robert Blaemire said he could remember only one time that Bayh had yelled at him. He had asked him to go out and buy some baseballs so the two of them could hit around with a young Evan.

“I went out, bought the cheapest ones available and when we started hitting them, they dented,” Blaemire said.

Early influencer

Although Bayh was elected to the Senate at a time when freshmen lawmakers were expected to wait their turn for a gavel, he saw an opportunity when the chairman of the subcommittee on constitutional amendments died in office in 1963.

Arguing that there were important issues for the panel to consider, Bayh offered to pay for his staff out of his own budget if he could take over the panel. He got his wish, even if that meant the staff had to work out of a converted men’s bathroom.

He pushed the 25th Amendment, which determined presidential succession in times of crisis, through Congress in 1965. The vote-counting was excruciating, he said.

“The next 10 minutes were the longest of my life,” Bayh wrote about the Senate vote in a book on the amendment.

Jay Berman, one of Bayh’s former aides, called the 25th Amendment a staggering achievement for such a young senator.

“It was just an amazing thing,” Berman said. “He put himself in the right place at the right time.”

Bayh soon got to work on the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age. It was approved in 1971, after the quickest ratification of an amendment in history.

Evan Bayh said his father knew how to form coalitions to get things done.

“He was very good at it, trying to sit down and find common ground with people. At least finding those spaces where they could reach principled compromise,” Bayh said. “Part of it was his personality and skill set. And part of it was the times. We weren’t as polarized. We weren’t as partisan. The word 'compromise' had not yet become a synonym for betrayal.”

Hamilton agreed.

“Back then the simple premise was to solve the problem,” Hamilton said. “We had our differences in Congress, and some were deeply partisan, but our overall response was to make the country work over everything else.”

In fact, Evan Bayh recalled that when his father first ran for re-election in 1968, the top House Republican – Everett Dirksen – asked Birch Bayh if there was anything he could do to help. And a few years ago, Dole credited Bayh with doing the heavy lifting on the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, telling Evan Bayh it was “80 percent Bayh and 20 percent Dole.”

The convivial Bayh was as much at home on the campaign trail as he was in the halls of Congress; he kept a horseshoe in his trunk for impromptu games as he drove around the state giving homespun, populist speeches, Berman said.

Hamilton said Bayh reinvented campaigning in Indiana, meeting as many people as he could individually when he swept into town rather than giving stump speeches and leaving.

“He introduced shoe-leather campaigning, he would spend days shaking hands and going door-to-door,” Hamilton said.

In 1980, after Bayh lost his bid for re-election, he never expressed regret or blamed anyone, said Blaemire, whose forthcoming biography of Bayh, “Birch Bayh: Making a Difference,” is based in part on their conversations.

“He said, ‘How can I be upset? I have been given the opportunity by the people of Indiana to do exactly what I wanted to do for the last 18 years,' ” said Blaemire, who worked with him for 13 years in the Senate.

Bayh was among 12 Democratic senators conceding that November night during a sweep by Republicans and President Ronald Reagan. “We had one consultant say it’s a tidal wave out there and Birch is on a surfboard," Blaemire said. "How good is he? ... It would have been a lot harder for us to accept the results of the election had it been a different set of circumstances.”

Bayh told the biographer that he counted Title IX and the Bayh-Dole Act as his greatest achievements. And Title IX was certainly the most widely recognized.

In his post-Senate life, he continued to be engaged with a number of public initiatives and stayed involved with Washington. Even at the age of the age of 80, he continued to work for the Democratic cause, traversing the state of Indiana to campaign for Barack Obama as vigorously as he had once campaigned for himself, Nation said.

In 1986, he told The Indianapolis News why he was so willing to step into the fray after his official role had ended.

“I may not be a senator any longer, but I still am a citizen and will do anything I can to help when I am asked to do so,” he said.

In 2003, Indianapolis' federal building at 46 E. Ohio St. was renamed in his honor.

Two years after his wife, Marvella, died of cancer in 1979, Bayh married Katherine “Kitty” Halpin, who survives him; along with their son Evan; a son from his second marriage, Christopher Bayh; and four grandchildren.