Gaylord Nelson, a former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator, died Sunday at the age of 89. He was an eloquent defender of the natural world and a man who brought skill and grace to the practice of politics.
Nelson died of cardiovascular failure at his home in Kensington, Md., a Washington, D.C., suburb. He will always be known as the founder of Earth Day.
On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million people responded to his call for a day devoted to working on behalf of and celebrating the world's natural gifts.
Gov. Jim Doyle on Sunday ordered flags flown at half-staff until sunset on the day after Nelson's funeral. Memorial services will be in Madison and arrangements are pending, said Bill Christofferson, Nelson's biographer and a family spokesman.
Nelson leaves three children, Tia, Gaylord Jr. and Jeffrey, as well as his wife, Carrie Lee, whom he met while serving in World War II and married in 1947. She was at his side when he died.
Doyle commented not only on Nelson's dogged defense of the environment, but also on his historic political career, both in Wisconsin and in Washington.
"He had a fundamental impact on the way that people across this state and our nation view and treat the environment that sustains us all," Doyle said. "He truly was the 'father of the environmental movement' here in the United States.
"But more than anything, he was a great man. He was just an incredible person: humble, funny, proud of his roots in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, and never changed by the power and pomp of the offices he held."
\ Small-town roots
Despite his rise to high national political office, Nelson remained Wisconsin through and through.
Nelson was born and grew up in Clear Lake, a community of 700 in northwestern Wisconsin, where his passion for the natural world was kindled. That attachment to the outdoors, to the forests and lakes of Wisconsin, would grow and deepen and become the bedrock on which Nelson would build a distinguished career in higher public office. But Nelson would never forget his beginnings, said Christofferson.
"Gaylord Nelson," Christofferson said, "was always this kid from Clear Lake, this little, small-town kid off on a big adventure with the attitude that he could never believe this was happening to him."
Until his death, Nelson kept up his subscription to his hometown newspaper, the Clear Lake Museum Chronicle, said Charles Clark, a friend and the paper's publisher.
Growing up in a small town gave Nelson a feel and an appreciation for ordinary people, for farmers and shopkeepers and teachers, according to Harold J. "Bud" Jordahl, a longtime friend who worked with Nelson when he was governor and later in Washington.
"He truly liked people," Jordahl said. "Especially the common man."
Nelson's childhood in Clear Lake also kindled his fondness for public service. Nelson remembered wanting to be in politics from the age of 8 or 9, when his father, a country doctor and the village mayor, took him to hear Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette speak from the back of a train.
At the age of 14, Nelson organized a campaign to plant trees along the five roads leading into Clear Lake. The campaign failed, providing Nelson a humbling lesson in the difficulties of politics. After serving in World War II, Nelson ran for the Wisconsin Legislature in 1946 as a Progressive Republican and lost.
\ First political win
In 1948, Nelson was elected to public office for the first time, succeeding in a run for the state Senate as a Democrat. He served 10 years and was elected governor in 1958, becoming only the second Democrat during the 20th century to be elected governor of Wisconsin.
During his years in the state Legislature and his two terms as governor, Nelson developed a reputation as a tireless worker on behalf of the state's environment. He started a state land-buying program, financed by a penny-a-pack tax on cigarettes that today bears his name.
In 1962, Nelson was elected to the first of his three terms in the U.S. Senate. When Sen. George McGovern asked Nelson to be his running mate in the 1972 presidential race, Nelson chose to remain a senator.
"The vice president is a creature of the president," Nelson told a Wisconsin State Journal reporter in 1974. "I don't want to be anybody's creature."
Instead, Nelson fashioned a successful and colorful career in the Senate. He developed a reputation for his wit and his humorous stunts at parties -- ripping the Milwaukee phone book in half and doing one-armed push-ups. He loved to drink and talk politics long into the night, even with his adversaries. Some of those sessions, especially with Melvin Laird, a nine-term Republican congressman from Wisconsin and secretary of defense in the Nixon administration, became legendary.
"Carrie Lee understood both Gaylord and me and put up with our many discussions far into the night whether we were in Madison or Washington," Laird said in a statement before Nelson's death. "There was no closer political friendship and love between two opposite party members."
\ Sense of humor
Nelson would forever retain his sense of humor and his love of a good story, especially if it was a laugher. At the age of 85, recovering from carotid artery surgery, Nelson spoke on the UW-Madison campus, where the Institute for Environmental Studies was being renamed the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
In his speech, Nelson graciously accepted the honor, blasted President Bush for his lack of leadership on environmental issues and ended with a funny story. He said fighting for some causes takes guts and remembered a letter from a Janesville man who was furious about a tax increase Nelson proposed as governor.
Nelson said he responded, noting in his letter that the writer seemed mentally unbalanced and that perhaps he should consult a psychiatrist. The man wrote back, Nelson continued, thanking him for his letter and his suggestion that he consult a psychiatrist. "Please," the man wrote, "send me the name of whomever you are using."
The humor and the small-town demeanor sometimes masked Nelson's skills as a politician. He was a ferocious campaigner. Nelson, for example, took an early and courageous stand against the war in Vietnam. But in no other arena did Nelson bring that ferocity to bear more effectively than in his battles to elevate the environment as an issue equal in importance to the economy or foreign policy or any other great issue of the day.
During his career in the U.S. Senate, Nelson fought and won battles to protect a number of beloved American landscapes, including the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail and, in Wisconsin, the Apostle Islands and the St. Croix River. He also fought to clean up polluted rivers and to ban pesticides such as DDT.
In 1963, Nelson began lobbying President John F. Kennedy to make conservation a priority, encouraging him to take a nationwide tour speaking on natural resource issues. Kennedy listened and made the trip, including a visit to what would become the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin.
\ Planning Earth Day
But the tour didn't have the impact Nelson had hoped and several years later, still searching for a way to open the nation's eyes to threats to the environment, he hit upon the idea of a nationwide teach-in, similar to those that had galvanized opposition to Vietnam.
He wrote letters to all 50 governors and the mayors of major cities asking them to issue Earth Day proclamations. And, keenly aware of how important young people would be to the cause, he sent articles to all college newspapers explaining the event and to Scholastic Magazine, which went to high schools and grade schools.
The result surprised even Nelson. As many as 20 million people took part in community events and demonstrations on April 22, 1970. Congress recessed for the day so politicians could give speeches and attend events in their communities. In New York, 100,000 people attended an ecology fair in Central Park and Mayor John Lindsay closed Fifth Avenue to automobile traffic.
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who was in college then, still marvels at the genius of it. "He had the foresight," Falk said, "to see that the public was way ahead of politicians when it came to the environment."
Jordahl said Nelson's April brainchild is what he will be remembered for but added that the idea and its execution was typical of just how the man did business and how effective he was at the art of politics.
"I think he is a great role model in terms of political leadership," Jordahl said. "He's an example of what a good politician who is serious about things can get done. ... He was tenacious. He wouldn't let an issue go away."
The impact of Earth Day, now celebrated every year around the world, was also more far-reaching than anyone imagined. In September of 1995, President Clinton awarded Nelson the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. In making the presentation, Clinton said that Nelson, as the father of Earth Day, was the grandfather of all that grew out of the event -- the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act.
After losing the 1980 Senate race, Nelson went to work as counselor to The Wilderness Society. He hardly slowed in his efforts on behalf of the environment. In 1995, when he was 79 and beginning to deal with pesky health problems, he gave 34 speeches in three months promoting the 25th anniversary of Earth Day.
And this April, though unable to make any public appearances on Earth Day, his voice was still heard, fiery as ever, in a newspaper column that ran in papers across the country.
"Without presidential leadership and congressional hearings," Nelson warned, "we cannot claim to be taking seriously the most compelling threats to our society.
"On environmental issues, our intelligence is reliable. Our scientists have the facts, if we will only listen. It is a slam dunk' that we cannot continue on our present course. But without presidential and congressional leadership, even an enlightened public cannot cope with the greatest challenge of our time."