Purdue Legends: Birch Evans Bayh Jr.

Ag alum distinguished himself as political titan, author of 2 Constitutional amendments

Birch Evans Bayh Jr.

1928 – 2019

By Radonna Fiorini

From president of his high school 4-H club, to three terms as U.S. senator, Purdue alumnus Birch Evans Bayh Jr. lived a life of public service. Born in Terre Haute in 1928, his sense of justice and concern for others led him from a farm in Vigo County to the halls of Congress, where he distinguished himself as a political titan.

Bayh entered Purdue in 1945, but soon left to join the Army, serving with occupation forces in Germany. He received national attention for developing a gardening program there for impoverished German children.

After returning to Purdue in 1950, Bayh was elected senior class president following a hands-on campaign that fueled his political ambition. He went back to Vigo County to farm after graduating with an agriculture degree in 1951.

In 1954 at age 27 and with Marvella, his wife of three years, by his side, Bayh was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives. He was re-elected in 1957, and served as house minority leader, then speaker of the house in 1959 at age 30 — the youngest in Indiana history. In 1960, Bayh earned a law degree from Indiana University and was re-elected to the State House, honing his reputation as a negotiator willing to compromise and work across the aisle. 

Setting his sights higher, Bayh was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, and served three terms, from 1963-1981. He was the first senator since the founding fathers to author two constitutional amendments: the 25th, which codified presidential succession; and the 26th, which lowered the voting age to 18.

In keeping with his passion for justice and fair-play, Bayh co-authored Title IX, a civil rights law which bans gender discrimination in federally-funded education programs. He helped craft the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act, and worked tirelessly for education reform, women’s equality, juvenile justice, drug abuse prevention, federal disaster relief, alternative fuels, and a host of other social justice issues.

One of Bayh’s last pieces of legislation, known as the Bayh-Dole Act and passed in December of 1980, granted universities, other nonprofits, and small businesses the rights to inventions they developed using federal grants. That legislation allows inventors to move their discoveries to the marketplace.

Bayh lost his Senate seat to Dan Quayle in 1980, but remained active in civic life until his death on March 14, 2019, at the age of 91.