Whether serving in the United States Senate, as he did for six terms, or on Denison’s board of trustees, as he did for a college record of 53 years, Senator Richard G. Lugar ’54 modeled a modest yet powerful leadership style that defined his career and service—on Capitol Hill and The Hill. “Dick Lugar was a great Denisonian and human being,” says Denison President Adam Weinberg. “He lived the mission of the college, and in doing so, he made the world a better place.”
The son of Indiana farmers, Lugar excelled at Denison. He graduated first in his class, belonged to Beta Theta Pi, and was elected co-president of his class alongside Charlene Smeltzer ’54, whom he married two years after graduating. Following Denison, Lugar was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Pembroke College at the University of Oxford in England, where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics—the very topics that would inform his storied career as one of the nation’s most respected legislators.
An early interest in public service led Lugar to volunteer for the U.S. Navy in 1956, ultimately serving as an intelligence briefer for the chief of Naval Operations. In 1967, he was elected mayor of Indianapolis, where he served two terms before being elected to the U.S. Senate. As the longest—serving senator from Indiana, Lugar earned a reputation for keen policy making, a quiet modesty, and a true commitment to bipartisanship. Neil Lewis, of The New York Times, recently quoted Lugar’s 2008 speech when Lugar accepted the Douglas Ethics Award for Ethics in Government from the Institute for Government & Public Affairs. “The relationships that are destroyed and the ill will that is created make subsequent achievements that much more difficult,” Lugar said. Partisanship “deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times.”
Along with Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, Lugar, a Republican, passed the Nunn-Lugar Act, which sought to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in former states of the Soviet Union. “What he and Mr. Nunn managed to accomplish in the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, viewed in light of the current renewed competition with Russia, has been widely considered remarkable,” wrote Lewis in The New York Times in April, 2019. “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimated on the 20th anniversary of the program, in 2011, that it had deactivated more than 7,500 strategic nuclear warheads and destroyed more than 1,400 land- and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.” Indeed, as longtime chair or ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, making the world a safer place characterized much of Lugar’s civic leadership. He continued to champion solutions to global problems after his service as senator through the Lugar Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy institute that he founded.
A loyal Denisonian through and through, Lugar enthusiastically championed his alma mater. In his more than half a century on the board of trustees, he made an enduring impact on the college’s strategic direction, from governance to affordability for all students—an issue he cared about deeply—to endowment investments to student leadership on campus. “Dick was a good listener, and when he talked, he was always thoughtful, so people really listened and took a lot away from what he said,” recalls Life Trustee Mark Dalton ’72, who considered Lugar a mentor and whose own service on Denison’s board overlapped with Lugar’s for 24 years. “The love he had for Denison, the respect he showed in the way he conducted himself in dialogues around the table, and the values he lived were inspiring.”
Lugar’s Denison legacy will live on through the Richard G. Lugar Program in Politics and Public Service, which attracts students of any major who are interested in government and public policy. Since its establishment in 1995, the Lugar Program has sent 150 student interns to Capitol Hill, and every other year brings two former members of Congress to Denison, where they meet with students, faculty, and community members. The Lugar Program also hosts the Richard G. Lugar Symposium in Public Policy, a speaker series that brings prominent public servants to campus to discuss national and international issues.
Denison students would be well-served to emulate Lugar’s collaborative attitude, says Dalton. “For Dick, being in the Senate meant respectfully engaging with other capable people who were serving their country to find solutions to issues—having dialogue and compromising with different viewpoints. As a consequence, he got things done,” he says.
Lugar died on April 28, 2019, at the age of 87. He is survived by his beloved wife, Charlene, and sons Mark, Bob, John, and David.