Around MKE

Gaylord Nelson: The Man Behind Earth Day

Gaylord Nelson

Gaylord Nelson

Happy Earth Day, Milwaukee County!

Both Milwaukee and Wisconsin share a special connection to the holiday, which celebrates its 43rd anniversary this year. The effort to establish a holiday to educate the public on the problems of pollution and demonstrate support for environmental protection was spearheaded by Wisconsin Senator and former Governor Gaylord Nelson. The Milwaukee County Historical Society just happens to have a collection of some of Nelson’s official and campaign publications, which detail his efforts to increase public awareness of environmental damage.

Gaylord Nelson was born in Clear Water, Wisconsin in 1916. He served two two-year terms as Wisconsin’s governor, before being elected to three consecutive terms as a U.S. Senator. Aside from his notoriety and perceived expertise on all issues environmental, Nelson was a well-known figure on Capitol Hill due to his bold leadership in a wide array of issues. He called for a Congressional hearing on the combined oral contraceptive pill, which would become known as the “Nelson Pill Hearings.” As a result of these hearings, it was made mandatory that all pharmaceuticals must disclose all possible side-effects. He was also regarded as a friend of small businesses, leading the charge to establish the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which improved the way the United States federal agencies regulated small companies and other entities. In 1973, Nelson was one of only three Senators to oppose the nomination of Gerald Ford to the Presidency after Nixon’s resignation.

Gaylord Nelson 002

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the breadth of environmental issues covered in the Senator’s publications is considerable. His papers detail everything from debris in the Milwaukee River to the dangers of strip-mining. On Alaska’s natural beauty he stated:

Preserving one of the last great wilderness areas on our planet is a profound moral obligation… of this generation to prosperity.

Nelson was never one to rest on his laurels. Each and every one of his publications, newsletters and campaign pamphlets is filled with an astounding amount of accomplishments that might put today’s elected officials to shame. In one year alone, Nelson helped introduce and pass  eight sweeping laws, bills, and amendments, most of which focus on his foremost passion.

Under Nelson’s direction, the holiday which would become “Earth Day” earned its moniker. He has gone on record stating that name was the “obvious and logical” choice, especially due to it rhyming with “birthday.” He also oversaw the first Earth Day celebration on April 22nd, 1970. Major celebrations were held across the country, including some 2000 colleges and universities, 10,000 primary and secondary schools and hundreds of communities.

The Gaylord Nelson Newletter - Announcing the first Earth Day

The Gaylord Nelson Newsletter, announcing the first Earth Day

Earth Day is now observed in over 192 countries worldwide, coordinated by the Earth Day Network. It would be nearly impossible to argue that any Wisconsinite had a larger impact globally – especially when it comes to how we perceive environmental issues. Gaylord Nelson helped transform the dialogue about caring for our planet. No longer was the conversation dominated by the 1960’s hippy generation. Due to his persistence, dedication and passion, it became respectable for a United States politician to take seriously the irreparable harm industrial pollution could wreak on our country and our world.

So whatever your plans may be for this year’s Earth Day, keep in mind the efforts made by Senator Nelson to ensure that future citizens would  have something to celebrate. Now go out and enjoy what Milwaukee County has to offer!


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