We talked to Jill P. May and Robert E. May, the authors of Spearheading Environmental Change: The Legacy of Indiana Congressman Floyd J. Fithian, about their approach to biography, what they learned while writing, and why the life of Floyd J. Fithian is relevant to readers today.
Q: Could you describe your book? How is this book different than a typical biography?
Bob: Spearheading Environmental Change: The Legacy of Indiana Congressman Floyd J. Fithian embeds late-twentieth-century U.S. environmental controversies and policy within a biographical framework. Although one can read this book for the life and public career of one of Indiana’s most canny politicians during the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, one can also read it to explore the environmental disputes roiling the nation and especially the Midwest during the period Fithian was in the public eye — pesticides, excessive federal dam construction, growing the nation’s national parks, reining in big oil and nuclear energy, and the like. Uniquely perhaps (we know of no other biography of a prominent politician that works quite like this one), Spearheading Environmental Change highlights environmental policy and legislation, bookending Fithian’s life story around core chapters devoted exclusively to environmental concerns. This allows in-depth concentration on individual controversies rather than simply inserting information here and there as one might find in a more conventionally organized biography.
Most especially, we wanted, as Purdue University colleagues of Fithian’s who lived in northern Indiana for over forty years, to uncover the story of how he dealt as a Democratic four-term congressman representing a red district with three environmentally charged issues that greatly impacted the people he represented —issues that swirled while we resided in Lafayette, where Purdue is situated. We hoped to position Floyd and his congressional district within the overall narrative of U.S. environmental history, so that readers would not only learn about a highly talented politician’s record, but also get a sense of the flow of environmental progress and retrogression nationally in a fraught period of our history.
Jill: Floyd’s ability to continually win in a conservative Indiana congressional district as a moderate to liberal thinking Democrat not once but four times also inspired us to begin considering writing a biography. We were curious to find out how he won so many times, why he finally ended his political career. We wanted to look at the ways Floyd succeeded in Indiana, and we hoped to find out how his personal beliefs and values as well as his strong Christian upbringing, military service record and teaching at Purdue University helped shape his political career. We were intrigued by Floyd’s decision to forego a secure, tenured teaching and research position at one of America’s finest institutions of higher learning for the unpredictable and often highly stressful life of a professional politician. What drove him?
Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?
Bob: Really, Jill deserves entire credit for initiating this project, so I’ll let her speak for herself on this one. I will say that once she got me on board by sharing the rich materials she had seen in the Purdue archives both in terms of Floyd’s political career and told me about the fascinating environmental issues he grappled with, I got excited about working on the book with her. After all, Floyd had been my colleague on the Purdue faculty for years and someone who I greatly liked and admired (even though he made me grimace each time he exposed me to his crushing handshake!), and I’ve been worried about environmental degradation most of my life. It didn’t hurt in terms of motivation that I had visited the Hill with his congressional aide during pesticide committee hearings during his congressional tenure and been fascinated with what I had observed, or that I had attended some of his campaign events with Jill.
Jill: Our primary goal was to bring attention to the vast importance that Congress has and can have in shaping our country’s future. Although we ended up concentrating on the environmental change that has come to the Great Lakes area, we did not initially see this as our focus. Floyd had been involved in a myriad of legislative concerns and he was an expert in Russian/U.S. relations from his PhD studies. We wanted to explore how congressional members involve themselves in issues that concern their constituents, especially since their reelection depends upon their district’s concerns.
Q: You were personally acquainted with Floyd Fithian and his family. How do you think a personal relationship with the subject affects the process and result of writing his biography?
Bob: That’s an interesting question. Jill and I sought for objectivity in our writing about Floyd’s life and career, and readers will find criticism within our narrative of Floyd’s decisions and policies in cases where we believed criticism is merited. But I’ll concede that we approached our subject matter with positive predispositions. From everything we knew about Floyd from our acquaintance with him, he was an ethical politician who fought for values and policies that we mostly endorsed. Therefore, it was a labor of love in a sense to bring his story to others. Knowing Floyd’s family, moreover, gave us a leg up in the sense that we could call, phone, write or email them when we were confused about details in his personal life. And his wife Marjorie and his eldest daughter Cindy were extremely generous in sharing family photographs, many of which are reproduced in the book.
Jill: I had worked on Floyd’s first campaign for Congress in 1972, and Warren Stickle was Bob’s best friend in the Purdue history department. He and his wife Marilyn remained some of our closest friends even after they moved. I have a good many fond and zany memories that involve Warren — it was his exuberance that first caused him to catch our attention, his ability to see the positive side of every incident. So, when I learned in 2016 that the Indiana bicentennial commemoration organizers planned to have a torch carried through the individual counties by past and present leaders, I nominated Floyd even though he was no longer alive. I believed he was one of the few Democratic national leaders who had significantly altered Indiana’s political landscape, and I felt his contributions should be recognized. I went to the Purdue University Libraries and read everything easily unearthed about Floyd. When I stumbled onto the information that the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections held his congressional records and read that they held important information on the conservation movement, I was intrigued. I wanted to use the archival materials to see what was there. Simply put, I had found a mystery that involved a personal acquaintance, and I wanted to follow the trail. But quite simply, I was not really considering our past relationships with the Fithians and the Stickles when I talked Bob into the project. I wanted to play detective, to go with whatever we found out.
Q: You previously wrote another book (Howard Pyle: Imagining an American School of Art, University of Illinois Press) together. What was different about this experience? What was similar?
Bob: Jill has this habit of enticing me into projects way out of my comfort zone. Both projects compelled me to try to absorb and master subjects that I neither taught during my classroom career nor read heavily in previously. As a person who mostly taught and researched about America’s nineteenth-century story (especially the history of the South, the Civil War, and American territorial expansion), it was challenging for me, especially in the early stages of both projects, to get into the stuff of twentieth century art history, environmentalism, and politics. Both times, too, we had to work through our different perspectives on the process of organizing and writing the project. The fields of history and literature, which we separately embody, don’t always line up in concert on these things. In both cases, we partly argued and compromised our way to the finish line.
But there were obvious differences, too. For instance, our research for the Howard Pyle book was more incremental. In Fithian’s case, because of his generous donation of papers to the Purdue archives, we had a huge bulk of material to work with from the get-go. In the Pyle project, our research was much more a case of discovering materials here and there, and it involved far more out-of-state travel.
Jill: I think that’s a great answer! Lots of good sharing and sharp arguments! I’ll leave it at that, except to say I had written a good deal about Pyle as a writer and illustrator before we began and I was familiar with his work, so in some ways it was an easier project than Floyd was for me.
Q: What lessons or events from the life of Floyd Fithian strike you as being most relevant to readers today? Why? In what way?
Bob: One of the things that I think struck us the most from studying Floyd’s career is how excruciatingly difficult the congressional legislating process is, that issues drag on from session to session often with no likelihood of being resolved in the immediate future, if ever. This is certainly true within the environmental field, with the very issues that absorbed Floyd’s attention like nuclear power, pollution, dam deterioration and decertification, oil versus solar power, and the like, resisting conclusive resolution to this day. Even a seemingly containable issue, like growing the boundaries of a national park, might have ramifications for many years requiring new legislation. We talk a lot about congressional gridlock today; and while partisan gridlock might have been less defined during Floyd’s time on the Hill, it was often just as difficult to get legislation through because of the powers vested in committee chairs and members’ seniority.
We also learned that even in the 1970s and 1980s when Floyd served, congressmen were plagued just like today with the need to prioritize fundraising and campaigning over their legislative duties. Floyd regularly called for reforms in these areas.
Jill: For me, the most important issue is that nothing has really been solved yet concerning our environment. For instance, we have found that although Floyd is especially remembered for his legislative efforts to increase the size of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park during his first congressional term, much of that expansion left issues that would affect him throughout his tenure in Congress. And they continue to be unresolved. There are still conflicts between NIPSCO and environmental groups concerning the coal ash ponds at the Michigan City Generating Station. The industrialization of the area has never been completely resolved. Linked to that — for me — is the overriding issue of good political representation for any area’s constituents. We keep watching the political parties as they gerrymander districts for power, often so that the very strong politicians who work for change can be replaced with less ethical party advocates.
Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?
Bob: Jill and I have always been inveterate newspaper/news magazine readers, so I can’t say that I was totally taken aback at any one thing we encountered in our research, but I must say I was stunned by the tactics of one local environmentalist, Connie Wick, in fighting the project of building a reservoir in the Lafayette area, not far from the Purdue campus. I had heard about her husband Joe, I think, more than about Connie, prior to undertaking this book. But Connie Wick must be one of the most colorful characters I’ve ever encountered in my research, and her interactions with Floyd, including taking a pig to one of her protests, should inspire activists everywhere. We have quite a bit about Connie Wick in our book, but she would be well worth a book in her own right.
Jill: And I was really pleasantly surprised to see how much of the environmental change that Floyd accomplished was aided by women, groups like Save the Dunes Council, and the national organizations of the Izaak Walton League, the Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club. Bravo to my newfound heroes!
Finally, I have to add that in all of our interviews with people who knew and worked with Floyd, we heard nothing but praise and strong commendation. We both are especially proud to have spent our time researching an intelligent man who turned out to be every bit as good as we thought he might be — perhaps even better than we knew before we embarked on this project. In the end, the puzzle pieces concerning Floyd’s departure from the academy revealed a man more genuinely motivated to serve his Indiana constituents while protecting the land in his district then to pursuing academic work concerning Russian and U.S. trade efforts.
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