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  • FILE photos: Former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, who died Thursday at age 91, campaigns at Grand Wayne Center in 2008 for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

  • Former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh stands just to the left of Michelle Obama, who was greeting the crowd at Grand Wayne Center during Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

Friday, March 15, 2019 1:00 am

Birch Bayh kept it personal, locals recall

Former US senator dies at 91

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

In 1974, after driving U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh in the Three Rivers Festival Parade, Charlie Belch encountered car trouble on their way to Fort Wayne Municipal Airport.

The radiator had blown, and Belch, who was Allen County campaign coordinator for Bayh, pulled into a gas station for repairs. He suggested they grab lunch at a nearby restaurant in the meantime.

“It's a McDonald's at noon. Well, Birch jumps out of the car, runs into the McDonald's, hops over the counter, shakes hands with everybody in the kitchen,” Belch, 81, recalled Thursday.

Belch borrowed a car from the gas station and delivered Bayh to the airport on time. Instead of being annoyed by the turn of events, Bayh was ecstatic.

“He was just so happy he got to stop and shake all those hands. ... He couldn't have been happier,” said Belch, who had been Allen County Democratic Party chairman a couple of years earlier.

“Birch was a campaigner,” Belch said.

Bayh, a former three-term senator from Indiana in the 1960s and 1970s who drafted two constitutional amendments and the law that bans gender discrimination in education, died early Thursday from pneumonia at 91 at his Maryland home.

Leigh Smith, 68, a local insurance company executive, was a member of Bayh's Senate staff in the 1970s and worked for his re-election campaigns in 1974 and 1980.

“I knew him as a decent person who was really great to be around and really good to work for,” said Smith, who was based in Fort Wayne and traveled northern Indiana during his years with Bayh.

“He was the kind of person who enjoyed very much retail politics. It was probably one of his real strengths. He was just a natural at shaking people's hands, looking them in the eye and making them feel like they were the only person who mattered,” Smith said.

“He was very committed to making those exchanges as personal as possible. Once you got him started, you could never turn him off, so he was always perpetually late to the next destination. If there were people to see or shake hands with or talk to, he just wouldn't leave them. You'd have to drag him out,” he said.

Bayh lost his seat in the 1980 election to Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Quayle of Huntington. Smith said he'd had occasional contact with Bayh since then and last saw him at a staff reunion in Indianapolis more than 10 years ago.

Belch, who learned of Bayh's death from Smith, said he and Bayh had kept in touch over the decades.

“I am not a small person. And every time he would see me, he would grab me and pick me up,” Belch said. “I do remember when his son was governor he called me a few times wanting to know how Evan was doing and what I thought.”

Steve Shine, chairman of the Allen County Republican Party, said Bayh used to visit the Fort Wayne home of his neighbor, county Democratic Party leader Nat Sheray, in the mid-1960s. Meeting Bayh a few times as a teenager “impacted on me deeply about becoming interested in politics and public service,” said Shine, 66.

As a college student in 1972, Shine escorted Bayh around the City-County Building, now the Rousseau Centre, although he cannot remember why he was selected for the task. Bayh later sent a letter to Shine that he has kept; it thanked him repeatedly and called him “a valuable helpmate.”

Bayh's last public appearance in Fort Wayne came in 2008, when he campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at a rally in Grand Wayne Center.

Gov. Eric Holcomb directed flags be flown at half-staff in honor of Bayh, and current and former Hoosier government officials offered tributes to him Thursday.

bfrancisco@jg.net