Former Senator Who Founded Earth Day Dies
Former Senator Who Founded Earth Day Dies
By RYAN NAKASHIMA, Associated Press Writer 1 minute
MILWAUKEE - Gaylord Nelson, the former governor and
U.S. senator from Wisconsin who founded Earth Day and
helped spawn the modern environmental movement, died
Sunday. He was 89.
Nelson died of cardiovascular failure at his home in
Kensington, Md., a Washington suburb, said Bill
Christofferson, Nelson's biographer and a family
"He died peacefully. His wife was with him,"
Thirty-five years after the first Earth Day, April 22
is still a day on which many people plant trees, clean
up trash and lobby for a clean environment.
A conservationist years before it became fashionable,
Nelson was recognized as one of the world's foremost
environmental leaders. Then-President Clinton
presented Nelson with a Presidential Medal of Freedom
in 1995 for his environmental efforts.
"As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of
all that grew out of that event: the Environmental
Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water
Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act," read the
proclamation from Clinton.
"Gaylord's contributions in the fields of conservation
reform and environmental improvement are a living
memorial to him," Melvin Laird, a nine-term
congressman from Wisconsin and secretary of defense in
the Nixon administration, said in a statement before
the death was announced.
Nelson entered public life in 1948 as a Wisconsin
state senator from Dane County, a position he held for
10 years. In 1958, Nelson became only the second
Democrat during the 20th century to be elected
governor of Wisconsin.
While in office, Nelson used a penny-a-pack tax on
cigarettes to pay for the Outdoor Recreation
Acquisition Program in 1961. The program allowed
Wisconsin to buy hundreds of thousands of acres of
park land, wetlands and other open space.
After two two-year terms, Nelson was elected in 1962
to the U.S. Senate, unseating 78-year-old incumbent
Republican Alexander Wiley.
In his three terms, he championed conservation
policies, including legislation to preserve the
2,100-mile Appalachian Trail and create a national
Nelson's most recognized effort, however, was Earth
Day, which he started as an environmental
demonstration based on the anti-war teach-ins of the
"It suddenly occurred to me, why not have a nationwide
teach-in on the environment," Nelson said. He
announced his idea at a speech in Seattle in September
1969, and it "took off like gangbusters."
The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, attracted an
estimated 20 million people. Tens of thousands of
people filled New York's Fifth Avenue, Congress
adjourned so members could speak across the nation,
and at least 2,000 colleges marked the occasion.
Nelson once said Earth Day worked because "it
organized itself. The idea was out there and everybody
grabbed it. I wanted a demonstration by so many people
that politicians would say, `Holy cow, people care
about this.' That's just what Earth Day did."
In 1972, Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic
presidential nominee, sought out Nelson as a potential
running-mate. Nelson said no.
"Behind his humor and behind the sort of rough-cut,
down-to-earth manner, there was always a person of
sober conviction," McGovern said later.
Nelson continued to represent Wisconsin in the Senate
until he was narrowly defeated in 1980 by Robert W.
Kasten Jr., one of a raft of Republicans swept into
He joined the Washington-based Wilderness Society and
served as its full-time legal counselor. William H.
Meadows, the group's president, called Nelson the
"founding father of the modern environmental
In the Wilderness Society, Nelson more and more
focused his attention on the world's quickly
multiplying population. When he was born in 1916, the
world's population was about 1.8 billion and it grew
to nearly 6 billion in 1999.
"The wealth of the nation is air, water, soil, forest,
scenic beauty, wildlife habitat take that away and
all that's left is a wasteland," he said in a June
1999 address to the Wisconsin Legislature.
Nelson grew up in the northern Wisconsin town of Clear
Lake and later said he learned to love the outdoors
"by osmosis" and learned frugality from his father, a
country doctor who conserved paper by writing his
patient profiles on the back of drug advertisements.
Nelson earned his bachelor's degree from San Jose
State College in California and received his law
degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1942. He
served in the Army during World War II before
returning to Madison to set up his law practice.
In 1947, he married Carrie Lee Dotson, an Army nurse
he had met in Pennsylvania. They had two sons, Gaylord
Jr. and Jeffrey, and a daughter, Tia.