Gaylord Nelson

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The Honorable
Gaylord Nelson
United States Senator
from Wisconsin
In office
January 8, 1963 – January 3, 1981
Preceded by Alexander Wiley
Succeeded by Bob Kasten
35th Governor of Wisconsin
In office
January 4, 1959 – January 4, 1963
Lieutenant Philleo Nash
Warren P. Knowles
Preceded by Vernon Wallace Thomson
Succeeded by John W. Reynolds
Personal details
Born Gaylord Anton Nelson
(1916-06-04)June 4, 1916
Clear Lake, Wisconsin
Died July 3, 2005(2005-07-03) (aged 89)
Kensington, Maryland
Nationality U.S. Citizen
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Carrie Lee Dotson
Children Gaylord, Jeffrey, Tia
Alma mater San Jose State College
University of Wisconsin Law School
Occupation Politician, activist, lawyer, veteran
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Battles/wars World War II

Gaylord Anton Nelson (June 4, 1916 – July 3, 2005) was an American politician from Wisconsin who served as a United States Senator and governor. A Democrat, he was the founder of Earth Day, which launched a new wave of environmental activism.


Early life[edit]

Nelson was born in 1916 in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, where he grew up and was educated in the public schools. In 1939, he majored in Political Science at what is now San Jose State University in San Jose, California.[1] In 1942, he received a J.D. degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison, was admitted to the bar, and practiced law. He also served in the United States Army, seeing action in the Okinawa campaign during World War II.

Political career[edit]

In 1948, Nelson was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate. He remained a member until 1958. That year, Nelson was elected governor of Wisconsin, and he served two two-year terms before successfully running for Senate in 1962. He served three consecutive terms as a senator from 1963 to 1981. In 1963 he convinced President John F. Kennedy to take a national speaking tour to discuss conservation issues. Senator Nelson founded Earth Day, which began as a teach-in about environmental issues on April 22, 1970.[2]

Although known primarily for his environmental work, Nelson also was a leading consumer advocate, strong supporter of civil rights and civil liberties, and one of the early outspoken opponents of the Vietnam war.[3]

In 1970, Nelson called for Congressional hearings on the safety of combined oral contraceptive pills, which were famously called "The Nelson Pill Hearings." As a result of the hearings, side-effect disclosure in patient inserts was required for the pill – the first such disclosure for a pharmaceutical drug.[4]

Nelson was also a noted advocate of small business. While chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, he led successful efforts to authorize the first modern White House Conference on Small Business, create the system of Small Business Development Centers at U.S. universities, and improve the way that federal agencies regulate small businesses and other small entities, the Regulatory Flexibility Act.[3][5]

In 1973, Nelson was one of the three senators who opposed the nomination of Gerald Ford to be Vice President. (The other two were Thomas Eagleton and William Hathaway.)

Life after politics[edit]

After Nelson's 1980 defeat for re-election, he became counselor for The Wilderness Society in January 1981. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in September 1995 in recognition of his environmental work.

Nelson viewed the stabilization of the nation's population as an important aspect of environmentalism. In his words:

The bigger the population gets, the more serious the problems become…. We have to address the population issue. The United Nations, with the U.S. supporting it, took the position in Cairo in 1994 that every country was responsible for stabilizing its own population. It can be done. But in this country, it's phony to say "I'm for the environment but not for limiting immigration."[6]

He also rejected the suggestion that economic development should take precedence over environmental protection:

The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.[7]

In 2002, Nelson appeared on To Tell the Truth as a contestant, with his founding of Earth Day highlighted.

Fraternity membership[edit]

Nelson was an initiated member of Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity, having been initiated in 1971 during a trip to La Grange, Georgia to promote the second annual Earth Day.[8]

Death and legacy[edit]

Nelson died of cardiovascular failure at age 89 on July 3, 2005.

The Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is named after him in recognition of his love for nature. In addition, the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore -– comprising more than 80% of the land area of the park –- was named after him in honor of his efforts to have the park created.[9][10] Governor Nelson State Park near Waunakee, Wisconsin, is also named after him. Also, an elementary school in Clear Lake Wisconsin is named Gaylord A. Nelson Educational Center.

One of his former staff members, Lewis J. Paper, was an unsuccessful Democratic State Senate candidate in New Jersey in 1977.


  1. ^ "SJSU Distinguished Alumni". Retrieved 2014. 
  2. ^ Seely, Ron (July 4, 2005). "A Wisconsin giant; Founding Earth Day one of many achievements of the former governor and senator Gaylord Nelson: 1916-2005". Wisconsin State Journal. Archived from the original on July 31, 2005. Retrieved April 23, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Aukofer, Frank A. "Gaylord Nelson: Earth Day founder was a voice crying out for the wilderness". Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Archived from the original on January 31, 2006. Retrieved April 23, 2015. 
  4. ^ Seaman, Barbara (July 2005). "A Planetary Loss. Senator Nelson had more than one string to his bow.". Healthy Skepticism. Retrieved 2007-03-11. 
  5. ^ Verkuil, Paul A. (April 1982). "A critical guide to the Regulatory Flexibility Act". Duke Law Journal 31 (2): 227. 
  6. ^ "Earth Day founder sees some progress". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 2001-04-22. Archived from the original on 2001-06-03. Retrieved 2007-03-11. 
  7. ^ Nelson, Gaylord (November 2002). Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise. Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-18040-9. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Gaylord Nelson | The Wilderness Society". 2008-10-22. Retrieved 2010-03-20. 
  10. ^ "Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – Gaylord Nelson Wilderness (U.S. National Park Service)". Retrieved 2010-03-20. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Christofferson, Bill,The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. ISBN 0299196402
  • Lang, Kate, John WW Mann, and Clayton R. Jones. "Gaylord Nelson, Father of Earth Day: Bridging the Gap from Conservation to Environmentalism." online

Primary sources[edit]

  • Nelson, Gaylord, Susan Campbell and Paul R Wozniak. Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. ISBN 0299180409

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Vernon Wallace Thomson
Governor of Wisconsin
Succeeded by
John W. Reynolds
Preceded by
Alan Bible
Chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee
Succeeded by
Lowell P. Weicker, Jr.
United States Senate
Preceded by
Alexander Wiley
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Wisconsin
Served alongside: William Proxmire
Succeeded by
Bob Kasten