Yeutter dies after battle with colon cancer
Former Secretary of Agriculture ‘always had to be busy working,’ his wife said
OMAHA — Clayton Yeutter treated everyone he met with the same level of respect — be it the head of state or the barista at Starbucks.
“He was warm and always genuine,” said Cristena Bach Yeutter, his wife of 21 years.
Yeutter died at his home in Potomac, Maryland, on Saturday after a four-year battle with colon cancer. He was 86.
The Eustis, Nebraska, native served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President George H.W. Bush beginning in 1989. Prior to that, he served as U.S. trade representative under President Reagan, leading negotiations of what was then the U.S. Canada Free Trade Agreement, which later became NAFTA. By 1991, he became chairman of the Republican National Committee, though a year later he was back with Bush as a counselor to the president.
Even in the last few years, as he endured surgery and round after round of chemotherapy, Yeutter continued to be active in promoting agriculture, global trade and the sustainable use of water.
In June 2015, Yeutter and another former Ag Secretary, Dan Glickman, co-wrote a commentary in The World-Herald that said the U.S. can solve the water challenges facing agriculture through research.
In recent years, he served as a senior adviser at the international law firm Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C., a position he retired from in December 2015.
“He always had to be working, needed to stay busy,” Cristena said. “If he didn’t, I think it would have driven us both crazy.”
Yeutter had been bed-ridden since Monday. This summer, during an especially tough round of chemo, he’d started writing his own obituary. In it, he wrote: “Clayton Yeutter moved as seamlessly among high level positions in both the public and private sectors as has anyone in the U.S. in the post-World War II period. He did so while maintaining the respect and cooperation of friend and political foe alike.”
Cristena said though he was always generous, her late husband was proud of his accomplishments and wanted to be remembered as a public servant.
As word of his death spread Saturday, many offered condolences that said Yeutter was just that.
Gov. Pete Ricketts tweeted: “Clayton Yeutter was a fierce advocate for Nebraska ag producers.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., issued a statement: “Whether it was in Lincoln, Washington, or halfway around the world, Clayton was a Nebraska statesman through and through. His humility, integrity, and dedication to public service made our state proud.”
Another tweet, from Ronnie Green, chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said: “America and Nebraska lost a giant last night, and I lost a dear friend and mentor. Rest in peace Clayton P. Yeutter. Exceptionally lived.”
In March 2015, Yeutter made a $2.5 million gift to his alma mater, UNL, to establish a new international trade and finance institute.
“There is more need today for prepared college graduates than ever before, as trade is a prime mover in the U.S. economy,” he said at the time.
A long-time friend, former Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., said Yeutter “absolutely excelled in everything he did.”
Yeutter graduated No. 1 in his College of Agriculture class in 1952 and later served as a faculty member teaching ag economics. He enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War, but later enrolled in the NU law school, graduating No. 1 in his class in 1963.
His career in government began as chief of staff for then-Gov. Norbert Tiemann. Yeutter was one of a group of young, ambitious staff members known as the “whiz kids,” a group that included Bereuter, Bob Barnett, who founded his own law firm in Washington, D.C., and Jim Hewitt, who became a prominent attorney and historian in Lincoln.
Yeutter’s career also included a stint as president and CEO of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Bereuter said Yeutter was a man with “absolute integrity,” someone who was committed to his country and well-respected for it.
“He was a remarkable person,” Bereuter said Saturday. “Everyone who knew him will miss him greatly.”
Another long-time friend of Yeutter’s, Lincoln businessman Duane Acklie, told The World-Herald in an interview before Acklie died in September 2016, that Yeutter “never left the farm.” In their weekly phone conversations, the two UNL alums’ talk would always turn to issues like crop prices and land values.
“When he was getting his doctorate (in ag economics), he was still farming in Eustis,” Acklie said. “He’d go to the university all week, and leave on Friday night, work on the farm, and then drive back on Sunday night.”
Cristena said though he loved the farm, her late husband’s passion was trade. In his last few years, he worried that the national attitude toward trade had turned negative.
As he aged, Cristena said she watched Yeutter become more patient, especially after the couple adopted their three girls. He and Cristena married in 1995 and adopted three children. He had four children during a 40-year marriage with his first wife, Jeanne, who died in 1993.
“The second time around, he really learned how hard raising a family can be,” Cristena said. “I think he found a new appreciation for being a father.”
As the girls grew up, he took time to play with them, even sitting for tea parties with a pink feather boa wrapped around his neck and clip-on earrings dangling from his ears.
He was messy, too, Cristena said — always out “puttering” in the yard only to come in looking as if he’d rolled in dirt. That was a joke in their house — when the chemo rarely left him nauseous, Cristena used to say his strong stomach came from all the dirt he ingested as a farm kid.
“He always kept his sense of humor,” Cristena said, even on the days when the cancer treatments took his strength.
“He was a fighter and his smile was always there,” she said.
Doctors told him four years ago that he’d live maybe half a year to a year with his prognosis. At that time, he typed out an email to a long list of friends, telling them he’d be gone within the year.
He didn’t tell Cristena he was going to send it. She wouldn’t have let him.
“I knew he’d end up outliving several people on that list,” she said. “I knew he’d keep fighting.”
Yeutter is also survived by his children Brad of Lincoln, Gregg of Omaha, Kim Bottimore of Vienna, Virginia, Van of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and Victoria, Elena and Olivia, all of Potomac, as well as nine grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on April 8 at The Fourth Presbyterian Church, 5500 River Road, Bethesda, Maryland. A reception will immediately follow in the Upper Room of the church. Private burial will be at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery.
Contributions may be directed to the University of Nebraska Foundation for the support of the Clayton Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance.