Gaylord Nelson, onetime Ripon College honoree, founded Earth Day

Gaylord Nelson

Today, April 22, we celebrate Earth Day and remember Gaylord Nelson, a former Wisconsin governor and senator, who founded Earth Day in 1970. He received an honorary degree from Ripon College in 1971 when the Commencement theme was “Environment.”

He told Ripon, “Your efforts to emphasize the ‘Environment’ are very gratifying, for the future welfare of our country is directly related to this critical issue.”

Earth Day is an annual event to support environmental protection. Events now are coordinated by earthday.org and include 1 billion people in more than 193 countries. It is considered the start of the modern environmental movement.

At the time of his death in 2005, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper wrote that the establishment of Earth Day “forever changed the political perspective of the environment. Before that day, Nelson said, he was lucky to get 17 votes in the Senate on an environmental issues.

“Afterward, he was besieged by requests from senators and representatives who wanted speeches and other background materials because they had come to realize that, regardless of their political persuasion, they ignored the environment at their peril.”

It added, “Earth Day was a milestone that, in retrospect, Nelson himself regarded as the most personally satisfying, although only as the capstone of his efforts on behalf of environmental protection throughout his political career and beyond. … As a senator, Nelson was the author of laws that preserved the Appalachian Trail, created a national park in the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior, and protected the nation’s wild and scenic rivers, including the St. Croix, Namekagon and Wolf in Wisconsin.”

After leaving the Senate in 1981, he served as counselor of the Wilderness Society. He was awarded the Adams Conservation Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom and United Nations Only One World Award. In 2002, the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was named the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies in his honor.