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In Memoriam: Birch Bayh
Birch Bayh, a Senior Fellow at the Starr Center, an American hero of historic stature, and an extraordinary mentor and friend to many Washington College students, faculty, and staff, died in the early morning hours of March 14.
The nation will remember Senator Birch Bayh (D-Ind., 1963-1981) as the principal architect of two constitutional amendments and the author of Title IX of the Higher Education Act. Those who knew him as a Senior Fellow at Washington College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience will remember him as a warm and unpretentious man who easily connected with those who were passionate about history and politics.
The connection was first made over a decade ago, when the Democratic Senator Birch Bayh and his wife, Kitty, retired to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and became intrigued with the school and the work of the Starr Center. After an initial meeting with center director Adam Goodheart and two political science students—Jack Bohrer ’06 and Mike Shaffer ’06—Senator Bayh embraced every opportunity to engage students in thoughtful conversations about the country’s historic milestones and its future trajectory as a just and equitable society.
“Birch came to Washington College to talk with young people about the public service that filled his life,” recalls Bohrer, a political reporter and television news producer now working in New York. “He took us through the legislative dogfights he won and lost, but most of all, he inspired us to make a difference, like he did. He was a great American, and to me, a loving and loyal friend.”
“I remember sitting and listening intently on every word he spoke while he shared his stories and experiences, and simultaneously feeling the incredible compassion and conviction that shaped each of those stories and experiences,” said Shaffer, who is now a senior policy advisor for the Washington, D.C. city council. “While I only knew him a short time, he had a big impact on me.”
Together, Bayh and Goodheart organized a series of Senatorial Colloquies, small extracurricular seminars where students would meet informally with Bayh and, on occasion, other U.S. senators who came at Bayh’s invitation. The Starr Center sometimes hosted public conversations with these dignitaries but, for Bayh, it was always about the students.
“He realized what a powerful thing it would be for him to share his experiences with the younger generation,” Goodheart recalls. “He told stories about the people he had met, the issues that were important to him, and the history he had witnessed: the Kennedy White House, the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam years. Students were awestruck—both by what they were hearing and who they were hearing it from. Birch was not at all a formal man, so it was easy to forget that you were in the presence of a great American.”
The only person since the Founding Fathers to draft more than one amendment to Constitution, Senator Bayh devoted his life to championing the rights of all Americans – especially women, people of color, young people, and others whom history had too long pushed to the margins.
During his three terms representing Indiana in the Senate, Senator Bayh was a moving force behind some of the most successful and influential congressional legislation of the twentieth century. Deeply respected by colleagues in both parties for his idealism and integrity, he was also the architect of pathbreaking bipartisan initiatives that have fueled advances in American higher education, scientific innovation, and economic growth.
“Birch Bayh was one of the most important Americans of the 20th century,” said the athlete Billie Jean King, who worked alongside the senator on women’s rights issues, in a statement released Thursday when she learned of his death. “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. Birch Bayh was a man of integrity, a leader with unquestionable character and an American treasure.”
In addition to his wife Kitty, he is survived by two sons: former Indiana senator and governor Birch Evans Bayh III, known as Evan, and Christopher J. Bayh, an attorney and partner at Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis. He leaves four grandchildren.