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Gaylord A. Nelson 1916-2005

Gaylord A. Nelson 1916—2005

Gaylord Anton Nelson, former US Senator and governor of Wisconsin, as well as an internationally recognized leader of the environmental movement, died on July 3, 2005, in Kensington, MD. Nelson was 89. The cause of death was cardiovascular failure.1

Nelson distinguished himself early as an environmentalist with his first Senate speech on March 25, 1963: "We need a comprehensive and nationwide program to save the national resources of America," he said. "Our soil, our water and our air are becoming more polluted every day. Our most priceless natural resources—trees, lakes, rivers, wildlife habitats, scenic landscapes—are being destroyed."1

Senator Nelson is best known as the founder of Earth Day. The momentum for Earth Day began in 1962 when the newly-elected Wisconsin Senator convinced then President John F. Kennedy to help make the environment an important political issue. To that end, Kennedy embarked on a five-day, eleven-state conservation tour in September 1963.1

In 1964 Senator Nelson joined a group of lawmakers to sponsor the Wilderness Act, permanently safeguarding millions of acres of federal land. In 1968 he worked with the Johnson administration to pass the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Working with the Interior Department, Nelson helped to establish national scenic seashores and lakeshores.1

In 1969 Nelson began a grassroots campaign to draw attention to the increasing pollution and degradation of the environment. His efforts were modeled after anti-Vietnam War protests called "teach ins." The Senator held a press conference in September 1969 to announce a major protest and to invite public participation. These efforts culminated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, in which an estimated 20 million people participated.2 "Earth day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of school and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself," said Nelson.2

"It was an immense thrill to see that breakthrough, and to see it culminate with Earth Day. I think that he regarded it as the highlight of his life, although he was not a person to brag about his achievements," said Senator George McGovern, the former South Dakota Senator and 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee (oral communication, September 8, 2005).

After the first Earth Day, Nelson continued to work on his environmental agenda. Within the first 10 years of the first Earth Day, 23 major environmental legislations became law. In 2000 an estimated 500 million people from 174 countries participated in Earth Day activities.3

"I regarded him as the leading environmentalist in the Senate," said McGovern. "We both came to the Senate on the same day in 1962, and left on the same day in 1982. We were seatmates all those years . . . I sat next to him in the Senate for 18 years. He was my closest friend." McGovern said their departure from the Senate was not an accident. He said a group of right-wing extremist organizations conducted a campaign to oust liberal Senators. "Gaylord and I were targeted, and 5 out of 6 were defeated. They used the word 'targets' for the people that they went after. I always thought it was a staggering blow to the good side of the Senate, the people working for progress and social change. I don't think the Senate has ever been the same since."

Prior to his election to the Senate, during his tenure as Governor of Wisconsin, Nelson created the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program. The $50-million program worked to acquire and conserve one million acres of Wisconsin park land, and it was funded by a one-cent tax on cigarettes. This land conservation and acquisition program became a model for other states.3,4

On September 29, 1995, former President Bill Clinton presented Nelson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians in the United States, for his public service and work for the environment. Clinton explained his choice to the honorees, their families, and friends: "In the 1970s, when a river was so polluted that it actually caught on fire, Gaylord Nelson spoke up. He insisted that Americans deserved the safety that comes from knowing the world we live in will not make us sick. He warned that our leaders should never let partisan politics divert us from responsibility to our shared environment. He inspired us to remember that the stewardship of our natural resources is the stewardship of the American Dream. He is the worthy heir of the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt."5

Nelson received his BA in 1939 from San Jose State College (California) and graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1942. He served during World War II as a First Lieutenant in the United States Army during the Okinawa campaign.6 Nelson began his career as a public servant in 1948 as a Wisconsin State Senator, serving from 1949-1959. He served as the Wisconsin Governor (1959-1963) and United States Senator (1963-1981).7 Senator Nelson is survived by his wife Carrie Lee Nelson, his two sons, Gaylord Nelson Jr. and Jeffrey Nelson, his daughter Tia Nelson, and three grandchildren.1

McGovern explained that Nelson had a wide range of interests, listing his work with the Wilderness Society, his interest in soil conservation, as well as wildlife preserves, flora, and fauna. "He had a total interest in all growing and living things. I'd give him an A-plus for his service as a US Senator and as the Governor of Wisconsin. He loved that state, and America, and he was just thrilled with the landscape of this country," McGovern told HerbalGram. "He was a person with a remarkable sense of humor, one of the wittiest people I ever knew, and I think it helped him soften up his opponents," said McGovern. "I miss him terribly."

—Katherine Purcell


1.Schneider K. Gaylord A. Nelson, founder of Earth Day, is dead at 89. New York Times. July 4, 2005:A12.

2.Gaylord Nelson. The History of Earthday. The Wilderness Society [Web site]. Available at: Accessed August 29, 2005.

3.Environmentalist Gaylord A. Nelson dies at age 89; Earth Day founder, Wisconsin governor, U.S. senator. [Web site]. Available at: Accessed August 29, 2005.

4.Profile of Gaylord A. Nelson. The Wilderness Society [Web site]. Available at: Accessed August 29, 2005.

5.Clinton W. Remarks by the President in presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Wilderness Society [Web site]. Available at: Accessed August 29, 2005.

6.Nelson, Gaylord Anton (1916 - 2005). The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress: 1774-Present [Web page]. Available at: Accessed August 29, 2005.

7.Wisconsin Public Television. Gaylord Anton Nelson. Wisconsin Public Television [Web site]. Available at: Accessed August 29, 2005.