In a previous post, I talked about how a group of four retired ag econ professors had such a big impact on me when I was in grad school at Purdue. Today, I want to relay an interesting story of redemption involving one of the four: Dr. Earl Butz. If memory serves, he was the very first PhD awarded by the Purdue ag econ department in the 1930s. He then became an ag econ professor at Purdue, then Dean of Agriculture. He ran for governor of Indiana in 1968, unsuccessfully. He was best known as Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon and Ford Administrations from 1971-1976. During the high grain price years of the mid-70s, he coined phrases like “get big or get out” “plant fencerow to fencerow” and “corn/soybeans/Miami rotations”. He resigned as Secretary of Ag due to telling a (highly) racist joke. In 1981, while I was at Purdue, he was convicted for tax evasion and served a 30-day sentence. That is an eventful life. (See more here)
Here is where the redemption part of the story comes in. Dr. Butz had been effectively “canceled” as a public figure by 1981 before anyone had ever heard of the term “cancel culture.” Shortly after this, he started doing something pretty remarkable in my book. As often as he could, when he went out to speak to ag audiences in the state he would invite an ag econ grad student to go with him. Despite his unofficial cancelation, he was still incredibly popular with farm audiences. Many times the grad students were from Africa as our grad program had a large contingent of from West Africa at the time. Others were from all over the world. Many have told me personally that this was one of the highlights of their experience at Purdue. And what an experience it was! Dr. Butz was an absolute rock star with farm audiences. He had more charisma with these audiences than anyone I have ever seen. The students loved being a part of it.
I don’t know why Dr. Butz really did this, but it is hard not to think this was his way of giving back after all his controversies. He did it quietly and with no fanfare and it deeply enriched the lives of several generations of Purdue grad students, including mine. I also think it is an important lesson about giving people a chance to redeem themselves after falling. Something that seems to be in short supply these days.
I have to end with a personal story about Dr. Butz’s humor, which was his trademark. I came back to the Purdue ag econ department to give a seminar a couple of years after graduating with my PhD. I was REALLY nervous. After I was introduced, Dr. Butz stood up with a finger raised, cleared his throat, and declared, “Now Scotty there is one thing you have to remember about giving a seminar here at Purdue. We don’t give a damn about what you have to say, but you better be funny.” Absolutely brought the house down. That was Dr. Earl Butz in all his glory.