Gaylord Nelson Papers, 1954-2006 (bulk 1963-1980)

Contents List


Gaylord Anton Nelson (1916-2005), Wisconsin Governor, United States Senator, and founder of Earth Day, was born and raised in Clear Lake, Polk County, Wisconsin. He graduated from Clear Lake High School (1934), received a B.A. from San Jose State College (1939) and an LL.B. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1942). After college, Nelson enlisted in the United States Army and served until 1946 when he was honorably discharged with the rank of first lieutenant. In 1946, he returned to Madison to practice law and suffered his first political defeat when he ran for the State Assembly on the Progressive Republican ticket.

The following November, he married Carrie Lee Dotson from Virginia; they subsequently became the parents of three children: Gaylord Junior (born 1953), Cynthia (born 1956), and Jeffrey (born 1961).

In 1948, Nelson ran again for the state legislature, this time successfully, on the Democratic ticket. He was re-elected to the State Senate in 1952 and 1956. In 1954, Nelson made his first bid for Congress, but was defeated by incumbent Glenn Davis. In 1959, Nelson became the first Democratic governor elected in more than 25 years.

In 1962, Nelson ran for the United States Senate against Republican incumbent Alexander Wiley whom he defeated. Nelson served eighteen years in the Senate (1963-1981) and “earned the reputation of a staunch environmentalist, champion of the family farm and small business, supporter of labor, tax reformer, friend of the elderly and poor, and consumer and health advocate.” (Biographical material: Box 1, Folders 3-4)

Nelson, best known for pioneering the environmental movement by conceiving and organizing Earth Day, also contributed to the public and political awareness of other significant societal problems. He was one of only three senators opposed to the war in Vietnam from the beginning; he strongly advocated for civil rights and the desegregation of schools; he fought to preserve America's natural resources and to end pollution of its water and air; he worked to combat poverty on several levels; he urged the tire and automobile industry to adopt new safety standards; and he exposed the problems and abuses of the pharmaceutical industry. It was said that Nelson was the conscience of the Senate and he was well known for his bipartisan leadership.

During his tenure, Nelson was responsible for legislation which established the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore; preserved the Appalachian Trail; incorporated the St. Croix, Namekagon, and Wolf Rivers into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System; contributed to the development of the Environmental Education Act; and aided in the passage of the Menominee Restoration Act and the establishment of the Upper Great Lakes Regional Commission. Nelson also developed several programs which were approved by Congress, including the National Teacher Corps, Operation Mainstream, Green Thumb (Nelson Amendment), the Job Corps, and Youth Corps.

Nelson served on several committees and subcommittees, most notably the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee; the Labor and Public Welfare Committee (and as chairman of its Employment, Poverty, and Manpower Subcommittee); and the Finance Committee (and as chairman of its Private Pensions Subcommittee). He was a member and the chairman of the Select Small Business Committee, chairman of its Monopoly Subcommittee, and a member of its Government Regulations Subcommittee. Nelson also served on the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs and the Select Committee on Official Conduct.

Over time, Nelson became nationally recognized for his conservationism and was awarded the Ansel Adams Conservation Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the 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. He also received honorary law degrees from Northland College, Beloit College, Lawrence University, Ripon College, and San Jose State College.

After leaving the Senate in 1981, Nelson was appointed Counselor of the Wilderness Society and devoted the rest of his life to environmental stewardship. Nelson continued to participate in annual Earth Day celebrations, touring the country and giving speeches while advocating for the protection of America's natural resources. Additionally, he lectured on population control and environmental sustainability.

Nelson died from cardiovascular failure at his Maryland home on July 3, 2005.

Gaylord Nelson Chronology

June 4, 1916 Born in Clear Lake, Polk County, Wisconsin to Anton Nels Nelson and Mary Bradt Nelson
1934 Graduated from Clear Lake High School
1939 Graduated from San Jose State College, California
1942 Graduated from University of Wisconsin Law School; enlisted in the United States Army
1946 Discharged from the United States Army; returned to Madison, Wisconsin to practice law; ran unsuccessfully for the State Assembly as a Republican
November 1947 Married Carrie Lee Dotson; children: Gaylord Jr. (born 1953), Cynthia (1956), Jeffrey (1961)
1948 Elected Wisconsin State Senator as a Democrat; re-elected 1952 and 1956
1954 Ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Glenn Davis
1958 Elected Governor of Wisconsin, the first Democrat to be elected governor in more than 25 years; re-elected 1960
1961 Governor Nelson's Outdoor Recreation Act Program (ORAP) is enacted to provide funding for conservation efforts throughout Wisconsin
1962 Elected United States Senator; re-elected 1968 and 1974
1963 Appointed to Interior and Insular Affairs Committee (until 1970); President John F. Kennedy's conservation tour in Wisconsin with Senator Nelson
1964 Nelson's Job Corps Program begins; Ice Age National Scientific Reserve bill enacted into public law
1965 Nelson introduced legislation to ban DDT; appointed to the Labor and Public Welfare Committee (until 1978); was one three Senators to oppose supplemental military appropriations for a land war in Vietnam
1966 Nelson's National Teacher Corps established
1967 Appointed to the Select Small Business Committee (until 1981); appointed chairman of the Monopoly Subcommittee of the Select Small Business Committee; began investigations of the pharmaceutical industry as chairman
1968 Nelson's legislation passed to include the St. Croix, Namekagon, and Wolf Rivers in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; the National Scenic Trails Act passed, preserving the Appalachian Trail
1969 Appointed Chairman of the Employment, Poverty, and Manpower Subcommittee of the Labor and Public Welfare Committee (until 1976)
April 22, 1970 First national Earth Day Teach-In held; Congress approved the Environmental Education Act; Apostle Islands became a national park after nine years of effort by Nelson
1971 Appointed to the Finance Committee (until 1980)
1972 Attended the United Nations and the Human Environment Conference in Stockholm
1973 Menominee Indian Restoration Act signed
1974 Nelson amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act approved
1975 Appointed chairman of the Select Small Business Committee (until 1980)
1977 Appointed to the Special Committee on Official Conduct
1980 Defeated for re-election by Robert Kasten (R-Wisconsin)
1981 Appointed Counselor to the Wilderness Society
1990 Received Ansel Adams Conservation Award
1995 Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
2002 Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison renamed the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
2004 Part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is designated the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness
July 3, 2005 Died at the age of 89 at his Maryland home