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Gaylord Nelson: U.S. Senator and Earth Day Founder


Close-up photo of Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson in his later years.

U.S. Senator and Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson was a visionary and lifelong environmental activist.

Gaylord Nelson - An Introduction:

Gaylord Nelson, U.S. senator and Earth Day founder, was a lifelong environmental activist who had a lasting influence on U.S. environmental policy and the American environmental movement and its core principles of conservation, sustainability and environmental justice.

Gaylord Nelson - Birth and Family:

Gaylord Anton Nelson was born on June 4, 1916, in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, the third of four children. His father was a doctor, and his mother worked as a registered nurse. Both his parents were active in Progressive Republican politics and community life, and his great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Wisconsin state Republican Party.

As a child, Nelson spent a lot of time outdoors and depended on nature for recreation—his family didn't own a radio until he was in high school. His early love of the natural world would evolve into a lifelong commitment to protect and preserve the environment.

Gaylord Nelson – Education:

Gaylord Nelson attended public schools in Wisconsin. He played football and basketball at Clear Lake High School, graduating in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression.

Nelson went to California for college, where he earned a bachelor's degree from San Jose State University in 1939. He returned to Wisconsin for law school and received his law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1942.

Gaylord Nelson – Military Service:

When Gaylord Nelson received his law degree in 1942, World War II was in full swing. He joined the army, was commissioned as a lieutenant, and was given command of a unit of segregated African-American soldiers. He and his men served in the Pacific campaign against the Japanese, and were involved in the battles around Okinawa.

Gaylord Nelson – Marriage and Family:

When Nelson's tour of duty ended in 1946, he returned to Wisconsin, started a law practice in Madison, and married Carrie Lee Dotson, an army nurse he met during the war. Nelson and his wife were married nearly 60 years, until his death in 2005. They had two sons, Gaylord, Jr. and Jeffrey, a daughter, Tia, and four grandchildren.

Gaylord Nelson – Political Career:

Nelson wasted no time starting his political career. After losing a race for House of Representatives as a Progressive Republican in 1946, he was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate as a Democrat in 1948. He served for 10 years, including four years as Democratic floor leader.

Nelson was elected governor of Wisconsin in 1958—the second Democratic governor in the 20th century—and served four years before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1962. As governor, he showed his love of nature by pushing through a one-cent-per-pack cigarette tax, using the money to preserve a million acres of land for public recreation.

Nelson served three terms (18 years) in the U.S. Senate. He was a popular senator with a reputation for independent thinking and a passion for environmental issues.

Nelson worked to reduce vehicle pollution, protect oceans by regulating offshore oil drilling, halt the use of DDT and Agent Orange, and remove detergents from rivers and drinking water. He sponsored or influenced passage of the Wilderness Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and legislation to protect the Appalachian Trail. He was also instrumental in creating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Senator Nelson also took a strong interest in education, automobile safety and health care. He advocated worldwide family planning to enhance the quality of life for all people. Nelson was also one of the first senators to speak out against the Vietnam War, a position he held until the war ended.

In 1980, Nelson lost a close race to Robert W. Kasten, Jr., who swept into office with many other Republicans on the coattails of the new president: Ronald Reagan. After losing his Senate seat, Nelson became a counselor to The Wilderness Society, a job he worked at vigorously for the next 24 years, until his death in 2005.

Gaylord Nelson – Honors and Death:

Gaylord Nelson received many honors during his life, including the Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, which President Bill Clinton presented to Nelson in 1995.

Nelson also received the United Nations' Environmental Leadership Award in 1982 and "Only One Earth" award in 1992. Wisconsin honored its native son by creating the Gaylord Nelson State Park in Madison, and Nelson's hometown of Clear Lake established the Gaylord Nelson room in the town museum.

Gaylord Nelson died on July 3, 2005, at his home in Kensington, Maryland. Cardiovascular failure was the cause of death. He was 89 years old.

Gaylord Nelson – Earth Day Founder:

Senator Gaylord Nelson had a distinguished political career, but he is best remembered as the founder of Earth Day.

Earth Day wasn't Nelson's first idea for focusing public and political attention on environmental issues. In 1963, he persuaded President John F. Kennedy to make a nationwide tour about the growing need to conserve natural resources, but the trip received scant media coverage and did little to increase environmental awareness.

As environmental conditions grew worse throughout the 1960s—the Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River fire both occurred in 1969—Nelson became increasingly committed to the goal of educating the public about the need for environmental action.

Impressed by the anti-war teach-ins taking place on college campuses in the late 1960s, Nelson conceived the idea for a nationwide teach-in about the environment. To get the ball rolling, the senator raised money to fund the Earth Day project, wrote to all 50 governors and the mayors of several major cities asking them to issue Earth Day proclamations, and sent an Earth Day article to college newspapers and Scholastic Magazine, which reached most high school and elementary school students. He also recruited Denis Hayes, a Harvard University student, and a team of volunteers to organize the Earth Day event.

Earth Day was a spectacular success: 20 million people took part in educational activities and community events nationwide. Congress recessed for the day so that House and Senate members could share their views on the environment and attend events in their home districts. New York City Mayor John Lindsay closed Fifth Avenue to traffic and 100,000 New Yorkers attended an ecology fair in Central Park.

Public response to Earth Day energized the U.S. environmental movement and made the environment a top political issue overnight, led Congress and several states to pass or strengthen key environmental legislation and to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a variety of state agencies charged with protecting the environment.

Two of Nelson's many quotes offer real insight into his vision:

"Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures."


"The ultimate test of man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard."

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