WASHINGTON — Earl Lauer Butz, the outspoken U.S. secretary of agriculture who served under presidents Nixon and Ford, died Feb. 2, 2008, in his native state of Indiana. He was 98.
Born in Albion, Ind., on July 3, 1909, Earl Butz grew up on a family farm and attended Purdue University on a 4-H scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 1932. He continued his studies and in 1937 became the first person to earn a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Purdue.
He taught at his alma mater for several years and was head of the agricultural economics department.
In 1943, he was a research economist for the Brookings Institute, and from 1954 to 1957, he was assistant secretary for marketing and foreign agriculture in USDA. He returned to Purdue to become dean of continuing education and vice president of Purdue’s Research Foundation.
On Dec. 2, 1971, he was appointed secretary of agriculture, nominated by President Richard Nixon, and served until Oct. 4, 1976.
“Nixon was kind of a loner, he had a cold personality,” Butz told Purdue University writer Beth Forbes in 2004. “Ford was warm and friendly. He wouldn’t embarrass a Cabinet member. The difference was you worked for Nixon, and with Ford.”
A straight-talker, Butz was colorful, but often spoke of the changes coming to agriculture, and is known for his blunt “Get big or get out” comment.
He was forced to resign from the USDA in 1976 after intense criticism for an insensitive joke he told reporters.
But, as the 2004 Purdue interview recorded, he had no regrets. “I try not to be a negative thinker,” he said in the Purdue Agriculture Connections newsletter article.
Throughout his life, Earl Butz championed the cause of the farmer, said newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, calling Butz “an optimist about American agriculture and the power of the marketplace.”
“He was also a pioneer who foresaw the opportunities that global markets could offer to America’s farmers long before they became a reality,” Schafer added.
In honor of Butz, flags at USDA facilities will fly at half staff.
Butz returned to Purdue after leaving Washington, serving as a lecturer and consultant around the world. He remained committed to the university, donating $1 million to the ag economics department in 1999.
He is survived by two sons, William P. Butz and Thomas E. Butz. His wife, the former Mary Emma Powell, died in 1995.
“I was a stubborn cuss, and I made some mistakes,” Butz told writer Beth Forbes in 2004. “But you’ve got to make choices, and you’re not going to be right all the time.”