Confirmation reached the communicators behind the scenes at the annual Purdue Ag Alumni Fish Fry just as the event began on Saturday, Feb 2 in Indianapolis. As dignitaries for the day made their grand entrance, the press received the official word that Earl Butz, former Dean of the School of Agriculture and also former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, passed away in his sleep the evening before.
Later, Donya Lester, executive director of the Purdue Ag Alumni Association, would note that at first it might seem tragic for Butz to die on this particular day, in another way it was a fitting tribute to one of Purdue's greatest allies and a friend to all American farmers. He loved the Purdue Fish Fry, she noted, and had made many grand entrances himself. Back in the days when he marched into the Purdue Armory on a blustery January day in West Lafayette, he had to worry what tricks Mauri Williamson might have up his sleeve. The Fish Fry has added a tremendous amount of decorum, but took time before closing this year's event to pay tribute to one of Purdue's favorite sons.
Bob Thompson, a former Purdue Dean of Agriculture himself and currently an ag economics professor at the University of Illinois, told the crowd that it was Butz who convinced him to leave a post in government in Washington to interview for the Purdue Dean of Agriculture job. In fact, he noted, it was Butz who picked him up at the airport and secretly took him to meet with then President Steven Beering, before whisking him back to the airport, all so that word would not leak out that Thompson was even interested in the job.
To the very end, even on the Sunday before his death, Earl was still 'Earl,' Hoy Paarlberg, another retired, prominent Purdue ag economist, told the crowd. "I usually took him to Church. Last Sunday he complained on the way that he didn't get much out of the service the week before. 'Well, Earl, I told him, it might help if you didn't sleep through the whole service!' That brought a smile to a tired but wiry face," Paarlberg notes.
John Hardin, Jr., a Danville pork producer and member of the Purdue University Board of Trustees, added, "Earl made a lifetime out of expressing that there are explicit costs for social support of agriculture (through a farm bill)," Hardin says. "Earl understood things, and he helped us understand. First and foremost, Earl Butz was a great teacher. " Butz, Albion, graduated with a BS in agriculture from Purdue in 1932. He earned the first doctoral degree ever awarded in Ag Economics by Purdue in 1937. He joined the staff, and headed the department from 1946 to 1954. He was dean of agriculture from 1957 to 1967.
On the national stage, he was Assistant Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower from 1954 to 1957, and Secretary of Agriculture from 1971 to 1976, serving both Presidents Nixon and Ford. Politically incorrect in some of his mannerisms before the term even became cliché, he eventually left office and suffered through some tough personal times. In later years, though, his opinions once again became respected, and he goes down as one of the most beloved secretaries of agriculture by farmers across the country.
Butz and Mary Emma Powell met on a national 4-H trip, and were married in 1937. She passed in 1995. Two sons survive.
"He was a tireless advocate for agriculture, and his efforts helped bring Purdue Agriculture into international prominence," concludes Randy Woodson, current Purdue Dean of Agriculture.