Hundreds gather at Statehouse to remember former Sen. Birch Bayh

By Emily Ketterer
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Hoosiers said goodbye Wednesday to a senator, but also a father.

Hundreds packed the Indiana Statehouse to say farewell to former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, who died March 14 at age 91. His son Evan Bayh, who served as Indiana’s governor before following his father’s footsteps to the Senate, and his younger son, Chris Bayh, joined those in attendance to pay tribute to the man who raised and inspired them.

“I’m very proud of my father and the legacy he fashioned with the help of many many other people,” Evan Bayh said after the memorial service. “As a son, it makes me proud.”

As Bayh, his wife Susan and their sons Nick and Beau held hands in the front-row, many of those who had known the senator over the years spoke of both the man and his legacy. Birch Bayh’s wife Kitty, friends, former staff members and current and former public officials from both parties shared memories, giving a personal and bipartisan tribute to a Democrat noted for bipartisanship in the Senate.

Former Sen. Evan Bayh with his wife, Susan, and sons, Nick and Beau, at the memorial service honoring Bayh’s father, former Sen. Birch Bayh, Wednesday at the Statehouse. Photo by Mary Beth Schneider, TheStatehouseFile.com

“If there ever there is a Mount Rushmore of Indiana, of Indiana politicians, and certainly Birch Bayh would be on it,” Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, said.

Holcomb was one of several notable attendees, including former Sen. Joe Donnelly, Sen. Todd Young, former Gov. Mitch Daniels, Rep. Andre Carson, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, and Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma.

In his political career, Birch Bayh served in the Indiana General Assembly for eight years, spending two years as Speaker of the House. In 1962, he won election to the U.S. Senate, where he served three terms before losing re-election to Dan Quayle in 1980.

Bayh is most known for authoring the Title IX law, which prohibits gender discrimination in education and sports. He also is responsible for passing two amendments to the U.S. Constitution to change the voting age to 18 and revise the presidential succession list. He was the only senator to accomplish this feat.

“Passing a constitutional amendment, that’s hard,” said Evan Bayh. “He did it twice.”

“It’s not very often you see a page of history turning. But in the passing of my father and in the passing of (former Sen.) Richard Lugar, that is what you see,” Bayh said.

Evan Bayh reminiscing about his father, former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, during a memorial service held in his honor at the Statehouse following his passing.
Photo by Andrew Longstreth TheStateHouseFile.com

Lugar, a Republican who died Sunday, had sent Evan Bayh a personal note on the death of his father, a man he had served alongside in his own long Senate career. For many, the deaths of two Senate legends marked the end of a Hoosier political era. A memorial service was held Monday at Lugar Plaza at the City-County Building where Lugar had once served as mayor.

Evan Bayh said the one lesson he takes away from his father’s life is to always “try to do the right thing.”

“He lost his last election, but people remember him for all he’s accomplished, and what better legacy can you leave?” said Bayh, who also lost his last election, a comeback after retiring from the Senate, in 2016. “He lived a life that mattered.”

Birch Bayh, his son said, didn’t let criticisms or attacks affect his work. Evan Bayh recalled that when he was 12, Life magazine ran an article comparing his parents –– Birch and Marvella, who died in 1979 –– to President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy, not long after Kennedy had been assassinated. This article prompted an unwanted phone call.

“I answered the phone, and the voice on the other end said, ‘Tell your father, if he intends on being the next John Kennedy, I intend on being the next Lee Harvey Oswald,’” Evan Bayh said. “He never let that kind of thing bother him. He did the right thing.”

The memorial didn’t focus solely on Birch Bayh’s political legacy, but also the personal impact he had on his friends and family, who shared some stories that made those in attendance erupt with laughter.

“We honor a man who knew where every Dairy Queen was in Indiana,” said Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

Evan Bayh said his dad would eat ice cream by the half gallon, and he recalled having a conversation about the treat during his father’s final days.  

“I said, ‘Well dad, I hope you’re getting some ice cream. I hope it’s good ice cream,’” Evan Bayh said. “He paused and said, ‘Well, I’ve never had any bad ice cream.’”

His second son, Chris, told those in attendance that he enjoyed hearing the stories from his father’s friends. He recalled that he did not know his father during his political life because he was born later.

He read aloud a letter he wrote to Birch Bayh when he was a teenager as he said it was the best way he could describe how much his father meant to him.

“One could not ask for a better role model,” Chris Bayh read. “I want to take the opportunity so that you know how eternally grateful I am. Please never forget how important you are.”

Looking toward the heavens, Chris Bayh concluded: “I love you, dad.”

Emily Ketterer is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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