WASHINGTON – Earl Butz, the Noble County native who was secretary of agriculture for two presidents but lost his job after telling a vulgar racist joke, died Saturday at his son’s home in Washington. He was 98.
Butz was a high-ranking administrator at Purdue University and its former dean of agriculture when he was appointed by President Nixon in 1971 to head the Agriculture Department. He left his mark on Washington by nudging farm policy toward a more free-market approach and by wielding his earthy sense of humor.
“He was one of the most vigorous and controversial (agriculture) secretaries of all time,” said James Webster, editor of the Webster Agricultural Letter.
Butz encouraged farmers to plant fence row to fence row and export more of their crops. But he was criticized by Congress in 1972 for not preventing the Soviet Union’s secret purchase of 25 percent of the U.S. wheat crop and much of that year’s corn and soybean production. The buy-up resulted in a domestic food shortage.
Butz fostered the development of large farms, which farmers created by taking out huge bank loans. Analysts have said that practice was responsible for the thousands of smaller farms that were foreclosed upon during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s.
Butz was known for his humor as much as his agriculture policy. He joked in 1974 that the Pope shouldn’t oppose birth control because “he no playa da game, he no make-a da rules.” Late-night comedian Johnny Carson made Butz a running gag, calling him Earl “The Pearl” Butz.
Butz was forced to resign from the Ford administration in 1976 after telling an off-color joke in reply to a question about why there weren’t more black people in the Republican Party.
As he cleaned out his office before leaving Washington, Butz told a Time magazine reporter: “I’ve paid a tremendous price. … You know, I don’t know how many times I told that joke, and everywhere – political groups, church groups – nobody took offense, and nobody should. I like humor. I’m human.”
Years later, in an interview with a Purdue newsletter, Butz recalled the episode. “Sometimes my quotes may be too colorful,” he said.
Three decades after the Butz told the joke, Purdue University removed his name from a lecture hall when students objected to the school’s honoring a man who had told a racist joke. Butz had donated $1 million to the Purdue agriculture department. Purdue named an auditorium in his honor. The hall was renamed the Deans of Agriculture Auditorium.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the former chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said he enjoyed working with Butz when he was at Purdue and the Agriculture Department.
“In later years it was an honor to often have him in the audience when I was speaking in Tippecanoe County. I will miss those reunions,” he said.
The Associated Press reported that Butz was found dead in his bed at the Washington home of his son Bill. Randy Woodson, dean of Purdue University’s College of Agriculture, said Butz had traveled to his son’s home last week for a visit and had been in poor health recently.
In the years after his resignation, Butz became one of the most sought-after GOP speakers in the nation, in part because of his salty, humorous delivery.
One Butz observation about environmentalists who complained about chemical use centered on apples. He remarked that most living Americans had never bitten into a wormy apple.
“Let’s be honest about it,” Butz said. “God put the worm in the apple; man took it out … Man used poison to get it out – deadly poison. But the good part is that you can’t buy a bad apple in your town today.”
As a private citizen, Butz pleaded guilty in 1981 to federal charges of failing to report $148,000 of taxable income for 1978.
“What I have done is wrong. I’m guilty of the crime charged. There’s no justification for what has happened,” he told a federal judge just before his sentencing.
He was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. Butz served only 25 days in jail, however, as the judge commuted all but 30 days to probation and Butz got five days off for good behavior.
Butz was born July 3, 1909, and raised on a 160-acre livestock farm in Noble County. His first eight years of education were in a one-room school.
His long affiliation with Purdue University started in 1927, when he began studies on a 4-H scholarship. He earned the school’s first doctorate in agricultural economics 10 years later.
A funeral will be Saturday in West Lafayette.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.