Earth Day: Pi Kapp Gaylord Nelson changed the earth

Gaylord Nelson joined Gamma Nu Chapter as an alumni initiate on April 21, 1971, while visiting LaGrange to promote the second annual Earth Day. Among his many notable accomplishments, he served as governor of Wisconsin and later as U.S. Senator. However, most agree that the pinnacle of his legacy will always be Earth Day.

After witnessing the decline in the environment as he traveled the country, he began his crusade by helping the Interior Department establish national scenic seashore and lakeshore sites. On a speaking tour of the West in 1969, Mr. Nelson came up with an idea for what he called “a huge grassroots protest” modeled after that era’s campus “teach-ins” to oppose the Vietnam War. At a conference in Seattle in September, he announced that the protest would take place the following spring. The date chosen was April 22, 1970, a Wednesday.

More than 20 million Americans marked the first Earth Day in ways as varied as the dragging of tires and old appliances out of the Bronx River in White Plains and campus demonstrations in Oregon. Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York closed Fifth Avenue to vehicles. Congress shut its doors so lawmakers could participate in local events. Legislatures from 42 states passed Earth Day resolutions to commemorate the date.

“The reason Earth Day worked,” Mr. Nelson said, “is that 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.’ ” Senator Nelson continued with his involvement in legislation that led to the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the protection of the 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail, among other initiatives.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded Mr. Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. “As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event,” President Clinton said. “He inspired us to remember that the stewardship of our natural resources is the stewardship of the American dream.”

Gaylord Anton Nelson was born on June 4, 1916, in Clear Lake, Wis. His father was a physician and his mother was active in civic life. His great-grandfather was a founder of the state Republican Party. When Mr. Nelson was a boy, his father took him to hear Robert M. LaFollette, the leader of the Progressive Party, deliver a speech from the back of a train, an event that the future senator said inspired his interest in politics. After graduating from San Jose State College and the University of Wisconsin Law School, Mr. Nelson served about four years in the Army and saw action as a first lieutenant on Okinawa.

He passed away one day shy of the fourth of July in 2005 at the age of 89. And we are all better because of his passion.

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