40 years of Earth Day: Remembering the man who inspired a nation

Gaylord Nelson.

The father of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, is one of the many conservation legends who have graced The Wilderness Society during our 75-year history. Some 11 years after founding Earth Day, Nelson became our counselor in 1981. He fought with us for wilderness preservation until his death in 2005. Below Wilderness Society President Bill Meadows remembers the man who put environment on the nation’s agenda.

I still remember that first Earth Day in 1970. I was working at Vanderbilt, in Nashville, and I walked amongst the information tables set up in front of Grand Hall and listened to speeches. It was the first time that I made a clear connection between citizen action and public policy. It was a day of awakening. I felt motivated to do my part, and before long I had become a Sierra Club volunteer.

I would never have guessed, however, that environmental protection would turn out to be my career and that I would end up working alongside the man who came up with this brilliant idea.

That man was Gaylord Nelson. Nicknamed “Happy,” he grew up in northern Wisconsin and always loved the outdoors. In high school he was a quarterback, trumpet player, and prankster. Gaylord went to San Jose State and then into the Army. Tom Brokaw’s bestseller, The Greatest Generation, had a chapter about him and his wife Carrie Lee, telling how they met during World War II.

The next stop was the University of Wisconsin’s law school. After being elected to the state senate, he became part of the “Truth Squad,” which traveled Wisconsin disputing scurrilous claims by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was leading a national campaign to smear Americans he believed had any Communist leanings.

In 1958 Gaylord became only the second Democrat in the 20th century to be elected as Wisconsin’s governor, and he then served 18 years in the U.S. Senate. A survey once found that he was the most popular member of that body.

But he was frustrated that so few of his colleagues cared about environmental protection. In the fall of 1969, after visiting the California coastline blackened by a major oil spill, Gaylord was flying up to Berkeley to give a speech. He read an article about anti-war teach-ins that were sprouting on college campuses.

“It suddenly occurred to me,” he said in a speech years later. “Why not have a nationwide teach-in on the environment? In a speech at Seattle in September, I formally announced that there would be a national environmental teach-in sometime in the spring of 1970. The story ran nationwide. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in.”

Gaylord opened a downtown office and hired Denis Hayes, a Harvard graduate student, to help coordinate the many volunteer organizers who did the hard work of making Earth Day happen. Gaylord was stunned when 20 million people took part on April 22. American Heritage magazine called Earth Day "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy."

Quickly, Congress got religion on the environment. Law after law was passed, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Gaylord had thought of Earth Day as a one-time event to jolt Washington’s political establishment into action. But teachers embraced it, many business people started to see opportunities, and Earth Day became part of the calendar.

When Gaylord left the Senate in 1981, he could have taken the path that so many congressional veterans take. As a Washington lobbyist, he could have become a rich man. But he was more interested in helping advance his life-long cause. He joined the staff of The Wilderness Society and spent the final 24 years of his life doing everything he could to protect the national forests, national parks, and the other lands that belong to all Americans. This year we are celebrating our 75th anniversary, and I wish he were still with us. (To learn more about Gaylord’s life, read Bill Christofferson’s wonderful biography: The Man From Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Senator Gaylord Nelson.

Every spring, as Earth Day approaches, I think back on all the wonderful moments I was lucky enough to have spent with Gaylord, learning — and laughing. He was one of the greatest story tellers I’ve ever known. Most of all, he was inspiring. This man showed us that one person with a good idea can make this a better world.

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Congress seeks to honor Gaylord Nelson

photo: Gaylord Nelson.