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Gaylord Nelson: The Extraordinary Environmentalist

Part 1of 2

By Muriel Nelson

Probably everyone in and around Clear Lake knows of Gaylord Nelson, the “hometown boy” who was the founder of Earth Day. That alone is a major accomplishment; yet Gaylord did so much more to address not only environmental issues during his life of service but also to improve living conditions for his fellow citizens.

Many of us may not be aware that U.S. Hwy 63 has been named the “Gaylord Nelson Highway” in recognition and appreciation of this native son of Clear Lake who served as both Wisconsin’s Governor from 1959 to 1963 and as one of its U.S. Senators from 1963 to 1981. His legacy includes several environmental achievements, including founding of Earth Day, creation of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, and the preservation of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior.

How did this gifted man grow up in Clear Lake and come to be such an accomplished and recognized person? To get the answers, I turned to another of Clear Lake’s own, Chuck Clark, a close friend to Gaylord through the years and who knew this environmentalist and his family well.

Gaylord was born to a country doctor father and nurse mother. Both parents were active in their community as well as in politics. It’s been told that Dr. Anton Nelson took his young son to a political rally in Amery to hear the “junior” Senator Bob LaFollette. Gaylord, an impressionable 10 year old at the time, told his father on the way home that he wanted to be a politician like LaFollette and would help people make their lives better, that is, if LaFollette had left any problems unsolved.

Even as a boy, Gaylord enjoyed being around his friends and having fun. There are a few stories about this group of pre-teens pulling some significant pranks on fellow citizens of Clear Lake. At the same time, they relished their free time out of doors. They skied and ice skated in winter and when summer came around, fished and swam in the lakes, went camping and learned to appreciate nature and all it provided. Gaylord and his buddies, including Sherman Benson, watched the turtles migrate from one pond to another in the fall, and back again in the spring. They tried to confuse the turtles by turning them around, but the turtles were “hard-wired” for their migration patterns. Gaylord took note of this behavior.

Gaylord, whose nickname was Happy, was a talented athlete. He played all the sports offered at the high school and was captain of his football and basketball teams. He also played trumpet in the band. He admitted that he was not the best student and preferred being outdoors over academic activities. He graduated high school in 1934 and conceded that he never studied throughout those 12 years. Lacking good study habits, he was unsuccessful during his first year of college in Wisconsin. He left college and returned home to Clear Lake in 1935. Fortunately, he got a job with the Works Administration Project, a federal program to help people during the Great Depression.

After a year of shoveling gravel, Gaylord searched for new horizons. He entered San Jose State College in San Jose, California even though he was still to decide what he wanted to do with his life. While at San Jose, he learned to apply himself to “the books” and graduated with honors in 1939.

Gaylord felt that a career in law would enable him to pursue his interests in politics, so he returned to Wisconsin and enrolled in the University of Wisconsin Law School. For the next three years, he dabbled in politics while studying law. During that time, Gaylord became president of the Young Progressives and supported the 1940 U.S. Senate campaign of Bob LaFollette, Jr. , the same man whose rally he attended at the age of 10. LaFollette won even though those were tumultuous times for the Progressive Party as it split from the Republicans.

Right after graduating law school, Gaylord enlisted in the U.S. Army. The Pearl Harbor attack had occurred just 6 months earlier and Gaylord felt it his civic responsibility to serve his country. He was initially assigned to work as an x-ray technician in a military hospital near Denver CO. Once he graduated from Officer Candidate School, he was transferred to a military installation in Pennsylvania. Two things occurred there that greatly affected his life. First, this was his first real experience with discrimination. He was company leader of a troop of black soldiers who, compared to their white compatriots, were treated very poorly. Second, this is where he first met his future wife, Lt. Carrie Lee Dotson, an Army nurse who hailed from West Virginia. She was attracted to his quick wittedness and handsome features and he to her energetic nature and bubbly personality.

It wasn’t long before the Army transferred Gaylord to Okinawa to manage a supplies station. A few months later Carrie’s nursing unit was transferred there to care for injured soldiers. They soon met up again and “the rest is history”. Even though their military paths went different ways for some time, they maintained contact.

When Gaylord left military service, this future environmentalist returned to Clear Lake and ran for the state assembly as a Republican but was defeated. Eventually, Carrie was also discharged from the Army, and they married in 1947.

Soon, they settled in Madison where Gaylord practiced law while establishing himself in that political environment. He became a state senator as a Democrat in 1948 and kept that seat for 10 years. During that time, he was instrumental in passing laws to desegregate the National Guard and to expand equal rights in the state. In 1957, he successfully ran for Governor on a ticket that stressed a good education for children, strong equal rights for all Wisconsin citizens and protection for the environment. During his two terms as governor, he established several programs to preserve Wisconsin’s outdoor resources for generations to come. Because of this, he became known as “Wisconsin’s Conservation Governor”.

In the early 1960s, Gaylord began considering what he might do to address the growing environmental challenges on the national scene. For example, phosphorus contamination was killing freshwater fish; oil slicks on some major rivers had become fire hazards; forests were cut down with no plans of reforestation. He had a good reputation for his fair dealings and many accomplishments through the years so running for the U.S. Senate seemed like an appropriate next step. Gaylord won that bid in 1962 and held that position for 18 years. As a U.S. Senator, Gaylord sponsored and/or supported sweeping environmental bills that became the law of the land, among them The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. In a 10 year period, more environmental laws were enacted than in all previous U.S. history. To accomplish this, Gaylord proved that he was an effective listener, negotiator, and the appropriate leader of the environmental movement.

Special recognition goes to Chuck Clark for information and reference material he provided about his good friend, Gaylord Nelson.

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