Senator Richard Lugar ‘54, a Denison trustee and Rhodes Scholar, lived a long and impactful life of public service before his death on April 23, 2019. A six-term senator for Indiana, Lugar served as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Much of Lugar’s work in the Senate was toward the dismantling of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons around the world, co-sponsoring his most notable piece of legislation with Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn: the Nunn–Lugar Act.

Among his many accolades, Lugar was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013. The medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor, which recognizes individuals for “meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Political Science major Chris Thompson ‘10 recalls an inspirational encounter with Senator Lugar on the one-year anniversary of his death.

By Chris Thompson:

On the final day of my summer internship, I was summoned to the front desk. “The Senator is headed to the airport and asked if you’d like to come along.”

His body man, Jon, took me to meet Senator Richard G. Lugar ‘54 in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building, beneath Mountains and Clouds, the massive black metal sculpture by Alexander Calder. We walked briskly through the Senate halls, Lugar politely declining to make a statement when we encountered a reporter.

He smiled as I climbed into the back seat of his Toyota Prius, the one he liked to brag about when discussing energy policy. “We were getting 60 miles a gallon the other day, weren’t we Jon?”

As we drove to Reagan Airport, the Senator peppered me with questions from the front seat. How did you get interested in public service? What do you think about cap and trade? What’s your impression of the War in Iraq?

As walked through the airport, his questions turned to Denison, the college I was returning to for my junior year, where he graduated from a half century ago. What activities are you involved in? Did you join a fraternity? Who is your favorite professor?

The Senator didn’t try to give any advice, he just asked questions and paid attention.

He didn’t know that I was questioning my political science major. That I was discouraged by the divisiveness of DC. That the more I learned about politics, the less I wanted anything to do with it.

Senator Lugar showed the eleven of us Denison interns participating in the Lugar Program in Politics and Public Service internship that summer a different way: To put policy above politics and people before party. That a twenty-year-old with a passion for public service is worth the time and attention of a sitting United States Senator.

The challenges we confronted were big – nuclear nonproliferation, renewable energy, and global hunger – but that did not stop him from being hopeful and encouraging us to read, listen, learn, and engage.

To me, and countless other Denison students, Senator Lugar was the wisest man in Washington. As I remember him today, my thoughts turn to Mountains and Clouds, that giant Calder sculpture finished in 1976, the same year Richard G. Lugar became a United States Senator. Up close, it can seem simple or abstract. Only from afar, as you step back in wonder, do you see how profound it is.

Question by question, it fills an open space with meaning.

August 14, 2020