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Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 17:34 EDT

Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson dead at 89

July 3, 2005

By Bill Trott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former Wisconsin Senator GaylordNelson, who founded Earth Day 35 years ago to propagate hislifelong devotion to the environment, died at his home early onSunday.

Nelson, 89, whose congressional legacy includedenvironmental measures such as the 1964 Wilderness Act and astand against the Vietnam War, had been suffering fromcardiovascular disease, according to his family.

Nelson, a Democrat, served three terms in the Senate beforelosing a 1980 election. After that, he joined the WildernessSociety as a counselor, although his daughter, Tia Nelson,referred to his job as “resident pontificator.”

“He had an extraordinary sense of humor and anextraordinary commitment to public service all his life,” shesaid. “He was a great raconteur. Nobody could tell a story likehe could. He had a life of commitment and public service, alldone with a great sense of humor.”

In giving Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, thenation’s highest civilian award, in 1995, President BillClinton said: “As the father of Earth Day, he is thegrandfather of all that grew out of that event: theEnvironmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the CleanWater Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Nelson said her father continued to work at the WildernessSociety until March.

“When someone asked why he still went to work, he said,’Because the job’s not done,”‘ she said.

Nelson was born in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, and developed alove of the outdoors at an early age. After serving in the Armyin Okinawa during World War II, he returned to Wisconsin,serving in the state senate and as governor, always with anemphasis on environmental issues.

Nelson managed to push the environment into the nationalspotlight with the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and ithas become an annual event that has spread around the globe.

Writing for the Wilderness Society earlier this year,Nelson said his goal for the first Earth Day was to wed thepublic’s environmental concerns with the energy of the studentanti-war movement. He was surprised that it brought out 20million Americans to take part in recycling programs, clean-upefforts and other environmental work.

“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response atthe grass-roots level,” he said. “We had neither the time norresources to organize 20 million demonstrators and thethousands of schools and local communities that participated.That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organizeditself.”

In the Senate Nelson had key roles in the 1964 WildernessAct and in legislation banning the pesticide DDT, preservingthe Appalachian trail corridor and creating a national hikingtrail network. He also worked for automotive fuel efficiencystandards and against strip mining.

Tia Nelson said a public memorial service would be held inabout a week at the Capitol rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin,followed by a family service at a cemetery in Clear Lake.

Nelson’s survivors include his wife, Carrie Lee Nelson ofKensington, Maryland, whom he met when she was an Army nurse.The relationship was chronicled in Tom Brokaw’s book “TheGreatest Generation.”