Russell W. Peterson

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Russell W. Peterson
66th Governor of Delaware
In office
January 21, 1969 – January 16, 1973
Lieutenant Eugene Bookhammer
Preceded by Charles L. Terry, Jr.
Succeeded by Sherman W. Tribbitt
Personal details
Born (1916-10-03)October 3, 1916
Portage, Wisconsin
Died February 21, 2011(2011-02-21) (aged 94)
Centreville, Delaware
Political party Republican (to 1996)
Democratic (1996–2011)
Spouse(s) Lillian Turner (1937–1994)
June Jenkins (1995–2011)
Residence Wilmington, Delaware
Alma mater University of Wisconsin–Madison
Profession scientist
Religion Unitarian

Russell Wilbur "Russ" Peterson (October 3, 1916 – February 21, 2011)[1] was an American scientist and politician from Wilmington, Delaware. He served as Governor of Delaware as a member of the Republican Party.[2] An influential environmentalist, he served as chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality and president of the National Audubon Society.[3]

Early life and family[edit]

Peterson was born in Portage, Wisconsin, the son of Anton and Emma Peterson. The eighth of nine children, his father Anton was an immigrant from Sweden who worked as a bartender and barber.[4] Peterson attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he received a B.S. in 1938, working as a dishwasher in the chemistry lab to pay the bills and a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1942.[5] In 1937 he married Lillian Turner, with whom he had four children: R. Glen, Peter J., Kristin P. Havill and Elin P. Sullivan. Lillian died in 1994. He married his second wife, June Jenkins, who had been recently widowed, in 1995.[5] He was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

At Wisconsin, Peterson was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society.[6]

Professional and political career[edit]

After graduate school, Peterson was recruited by the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company to work as a research chemist at its Experimental Station in Wilmington. For over 26 years he held prominent jobs in research, manufacturing and sales, and finally in corporate management, becoming director of research and development in 1963.[4]

All the while, Peterson had become a well known civic activist from suburban New Castle County. He had been involved in the “New Day for Delaware” attempt at governmental reform in the Boggs administration, and had organized an effort at prison reform known as the “Three-S Citizen’s Campaign,” salvage people, save dollars, and shrink the crime rate. His leadership skills inspired Henry B. du Pont to appoint him to the executive committee of the Greater Wilmington Development Council. He was put in charge of the Neighborhood Improvement Program, tasked with solving poverty in the black community. By 1968 Delaware had experienced rioting following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and National Guard troops were still on the streets of Wilmington on the orders of the conservative Democratic Governor, Charles L. Terry, Jr.. Peterson seemed to have a fresh, progressive approach for addressing these and other issues and was drafted by Republican state leaders to run for Governor.

Governor of Delaware[edit]

Accordingly, Peterson was elected Governor of Delaware in 1968, narrowly defeating the incumbent Governor Charles L. Terry, Jr. His first act was to remove the National Guard from Wilmington.[4] His administration was one that enacted several substantial changes, with perhaps the biggest change being the successful implementation of the old “New Day for Delaware” plan that transformed the organization of state government. Delaware’s executive departments had been run by commissions, appointed by the governor, but with considerable policy independence, and overlapping terms. As a result the governor had control over his departments only through persuasion and the budget. The newly enacted law provided for an eleven-man cabinet organization, with department leadership provided by persons serving at the pleasure of the Governor. In all, Peterson eliminated 100 commissions and boards. Neither Peterson nor his successor, Sherman W. Tribbitt, were fully able to take advantage of this change, but their successors all made it one of the foundations of the present Delaware state government.

Peterson was also a dedicated environmentalist and the guiding force behind the Coastal Zone Act of 1972. This act protected Delaware's inland bays and waterways by banning heavy industry from a two-mile-wide strip of Delaware's 115 mile coastline, about 20% of the state. The major consequence of the Act was preventing Shell from building a $200m oil refinery.[4] This piece of legislation has since been used by other states to protect their shorelines. During his tenure as governor Peterson chaired the Education Commission of the States from 1970 to 1971. When Maurice Stans, the Secretary of Commerce under Richard Nixon complained to Peterson that the Act harmed America's security and prosperity, Peterson listed a dozen ways in which companies could continue their work without harming Delaware's coastline. The Act was unsuccessfully challenged in court, and Peterson led the environmental movement in Delaware by sporting a badge on his lapel that said "To Hell with Shell!"[4]

These were a breathtaking number of changes for normally conservative Delaware – Peterson appointed the first person of color, Arva Jackson, to the University of Delaware's board of trustees, insisted on the hiring of black people to the State Police, pressed for the state's open housing law and relaxed abortion laws.[7] In 1972, Delaware became the last state to outlaw flogging as a form of punishment, removing Red Hannah, America's last whipping post. Meanwhile, in spite of warnings, Peterson seemed to be unaware of growing financial problems for the state. Finally, in June 1971, Peterson admitted he had made revenue miscalculations resulting in a $5 million deficit. The mistake opened the door to opponents of the other changes to unleash a barrage of criticism. As a result, when he sought a second term the next year, he was nearly defeated in the Republican primary by former Lieutenant Governor David P. Buckson. In the general election, he was defeated by the Democratic former Lieutenant Governor Sherman W. Tribbitt after announcing an unexpected tax increase in the middle of the campaign.[4] He left office with Delaware enjoying a budget surplus.


Delaware General Assembly
(sessions while Governor)
Year Assembly Senate Majority President
pro tempore
House Majority Speaker
1969–1970 125th Republican Reynolds du Pont Republican George C. Hering, III
1971–1972 126th Republican Reynolds du Pont Republican William L. Frederick

Later career[edit]

After leaving office, Nixon, impressed by Peterson's answers to Stans' questions, appointed Peterson as Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. Peterson served from 1973–1976, leading a taskforce on the elimination of chlorofluorocarbons and helping to shape environmental reviews as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act. In November 1973, Peterson worked with then-Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller to establish the Commission on Critical Choices for Americans.[8] Peterson served as the President of the National Audubon Society from 1979 to 1985,[9] he fought Ronald Reagan's attempts to weaken environmental regulations, pushed the Society beyond its traditional remit into areas like energy policy, toxic waste and population control. He hired more scientists, started an environmental curriculum for school children and got Ted Turner to finance the TV series The World of Audubon, narrated by Robert Redford, amongst others.[4]

"Every time something wonderful has happened when I was president and since then in the field of environmental quality in this country or on a global basis, Russ Peterson has been intimately involved in it."

Jimmy Carter, at the University of Delaware, 1993[10]

A keen bird watcher, Peterson took up the hobby after taking his son to the Everglades in 1954 and identified over 1,000 birds during his life.[4] In October 1996 he switched his party affiliation to the Democratic Party, after endorsing Democrats in presidential elections since 1988.[5] The Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge, just outside Wilmington, has been named in his honor.[11] Peterson also served as a visiting professor at Dartmouth College in 1985, Carleton College in 1986, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1987.[5] He also served as President of the International Council for Bird Preservation, as a principal officer in three international environmental organisations, worked for the United Nations on various activities and as Chairman of the Center on the Long-Term Biological Consequences of Nuclear War, working with Carl Sagan, Paul Ehrlich and Peter Raven to employ scientists to inform world leaders of the dangers of nuclear weapons.[10]

In 1982, Russell W. Peterson was honored to be selected as the Swedish-American of the year by the Vasa Order of American.[12] In 1984 he was given the Robert Marshall Award by the Wilderness Society, in 1994 the National Wildlife Federation gave him the Conservationist of the Year award, in 1995, the League of Conservation Voters awarded him its lifetime achievement award and in 2007 he was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.

In April 2008, a small ship was rechristened "Russell W. Peterson." The ship, owned by Aqua Survey Inc. was used for the study of migratory bird routes. However, on May 12, 2008, the "Russell W. Peterson" was destroyed in a storm off the Delaware coast, killing one of its two crew members.[13]

Peterson suffered a stroke on the morning of Monday, February 21, 2011 and died at 8:10pm that evening[7] at his Centerville home.[14] He was survived by his wife, four children, seventeen grandchildren and sixteen great-grandchildren.

Almanac[edit]

Elections are held the first Tuesday after November 1. The Governor takes office the third Tuesday of January and has a four-year term.

Public Offices
Office Type Location Began office Ended office notes'
Governor Executive Dover January 21, 1969 January 16, 1973
Election results
Year Office Election Subject Party Votes  % Opponent Party Votes  %
1968 Governor General Russell W. Peterson Republican 104,474 51% Charles L. Terry, Jr. Democratic 102,360 49%
1972 Governor Primary Russell W. Peterson Republican 23,929 54% David P. Buckson Republican 20,138 46%
1972 Governor General Russell W. Peterson Republican 109,583 49% Sherman W. Tribbitt Democratic 117,274 51%


See also[edit]

References[edit]

Other sources[edit]

  • Boyer, William W. (2000). Governing Delaware. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press. ISBN 1-892142-23-6. 
  • Cohen, Celia (2002). Only in Delaware, Politics and Politicians in the First State. Newark, Delaware: Grapevine Publishing. 
  • Hoffecker, Carol E. (2004). Democracy in Delaware. Wilmington, Delaware: Cedar Tree Books. ISBN 1-892142-23-6. 
  • Martin, Roger A. (1984). History of Delaware Through its Governors. Wilmington, Delaware: McClafferty Press. 
  • Munroe, John A. (1993). History of Delaware. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press. ISBN 0-87413-493-5. 
  • Peterson, Russell W. (1999). Rebel with a conscience. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press. p. 416 p. ISBN 0-87413-681-4. 
  • Peterson, Russell W. (2003). Patriots, stand up!. Wilmington, Delaware: Cedar Tree Books. p. 76 p. ISBN 1-892142-20-1. 

External links[edit]