To me, Bill Ruckelshaus was both an American hero and a personal one.
American, because when called to public service, he answered: in state government in Indiana, in the Justice Department, and at the EPA.
A personal one, because he embodied values that all leaders should aspire to: integrity, thoughtfulness, a willingness to listen, humility, and decisiveness when the situation called for it.
I was in high school when Bill Ruckelshaus became the first Administrator of EPA. What I learned later was that Bill, at the age of 38, took on an enormous job to combine 8800 employees from 15 different government departments into a single new agency, given sweeping new powers by Congress to fight pollution.
Bill would have been the first to tell you that he didn’t come into that job as an environmental advocate or expert, though he had some experience in the early 1960’s of trying to clean up pollution as a Deputy State Attorney General in Indiana. After serving in the Indiana State Legislature and then running unsuccessfully against Birch Bayh for a U.S. Senate seat in 1968, he was appointed as an Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department, where he attracted the attention of Attorney General John Mitchell as someone who could effectively handle controversial issues—especially with young people, over such things as demonstrations against the Vietnam War, civil rights, and unrest on college campuses. It was this success (and a quiet lobbying campaign by a senior Public Health Service Officer who had worked with Ruckelshaus in Indiana) that led Mitchell to recommend to President Nixon that Ruckelshaus become the first head of the new EPA.
A vast library of academic and popular writing exists about Bill’s experiences as the first EPA Administrator. Among his notable achievements—beyond the herculean task of getting EPA on its feet—were the bringing of high-profile water pollution cases against the cities of Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit, establishing the first National Ambient Air Quality Standards, setting tough automobile standards that led to the universal use of catalytic converters and lead-free gasoline, and banning the pesticide DDT. As further deep literature exists about Bill’s role in the Justice Department after leaving EPA the first time, there is no need to repeat the story of the “Saturday Night Massacre” other than to note that it confirmed Bill’s reputation for principled rectitude.
While these dramatic changes in American environmental policy now have the air of inevitability, it was not so at the time. Bill enjoyed telling the story of his introductory meeting with the chief executive of an American steel manufacturer. In his telling, the executive looked at Bill and said, “You know, I don’t like your agency. And I don’t really like you either. This pollution thing—it’ll pass. It’s just a fad.”
People whose lives were privileged to come into contact with Bill could count themselves blessed. When you read the obituaries of great figures, one risk is that the individuals can seem remote, somehow larger than life. Bill certainly did not see himself that way, but part of his greatness was that for all of his accomplishments and abilities, he had a rare gift for putting people at ease, of projecting a personal and professional interest and concern for what you were thinking. He did not suffer fools gladly, but his genuine interest inspired tremendous loyalty among those who worked for him, and the closer you were, the more you were inspired.
My first encounter with Bill Ruckelshaus was in the spring of 1983, when President Reagan announced that Ruckelshaus had agreed to come back to the EPA as Administrator. At that time I had been in the EPA’s Washington Headquarters for about 5 years, as a staff member in the Policy Office. Bill’s return, following the traumatic tenure of his predecessor, Anne Gorsuch Burford (mother of current Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch), was like a transition from night to day.
I remember an event when he came over to the EPA for the first time after that announcement. The EPA had no auditorium, but there was a gathering space in the old Waterside Mall outside a Safeway grocery store. The EPA’s facilities staff set up a podium in the middle of that space, and when Ruckelshaus got there, he was just mobbed. People were so happy to see him, both those who had worked with him in the EPA’s first days, and those who were newer but had despaired during the preceding two years. Bill gave brief remarks, welcomed both veterans of his first tenure and those of us who were “new”, and everyone left with a spring in their step. It was a happening, and the enthusiasm was overwhelming.
A second encounter was at an EPA Awards Ceremony that fall. By that time Bill was well into the work of restoring the basic principles and functioning of EPA, and while there remained many difficult policy challenges (not all of which went his way), the whole tenor of the place had changed for the better. I was receiving a medal for work on a policy on state-federal relationships, and have to this day a picture in my office (which he later autographed) of me shaking hands with Bill.
In 1984, I met with Bill when I was doing research on my dissertation on the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (or PSD) Program under the Clean Air Act. I interviewed him about the Sierra Club vs. Ruckelshaus' decision in the D.C. District Court that ultimately led to the development of the PSD Program. I remember him at that time as thoughtful about the decision and somewhat critical of it, and concerned about relying so heavily on a single phrase in the Clean Air Act to create a program that would balance environmental protection and economic development. He was not at the EPA during PSD’s subsequent development, and PSD was subsequently embodied in statute and regulation, but his views reflected a concern about using the courts to compel sweeping policy action when Congress and the public had not been brought along to support it.
In 1995, I attended the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) annual conference, where ELI presented its 1995 Environmental Achievement Award to Bill. That was the occasion of his memorable “pendulum” speech, which became, according to Steve Dujack, the most frequently requested reprint ever in the 35 year history of the Environmental Forum. I was also there at an event in 2005 celebrating EPA’s 35th Anniversary, where Bill, along with other former EPA Administrators, held up his hand to say “yes” when asked if he thought climate change was real and that humans were causing it.
Ruckelshaus was a phenomenal public speaker, with a distinctive voice, a clear, compelling command of language, and a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor. I have stolen a joke that he gave at the 1983 awards ceremony countless times, and it never fails to get a laugh. A letter to the editor of Industry Week when Bill was appointed Chief Executive of BFI, commenting on the article in that journal and quoted in Bill’s Washington Post obituary, is entirely characteristic (“You did your usual thorough and fair job. My only complaint is that I did not come out as a combination of Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Clint Eastwood.”) I was told that Bill was great friends with the former CEO of Delta Airlines, Gerald Grinstein, and that when Grinstein retired, Ruckelshaus came to a roast for him and had the audience rolling in the aisles.
When I saw Bill many years later, while I was Acting Deputy Administrator, I brought my 1983 picture with me to a reception with him and his family. His wife Jill told me that he had changed a lot but I had not (this is untrue!). This reception was on the occasion of the 2015 award to Bill of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. This was at Gina McCarthy’s initiative and it was so richly deserved.
On that occasion, we asked Bill come over to EPA to meet with some of the staff. By this time, of course, there weren’t many of us left who had been at the 1983 “happening”, and he was reluctant to call attention to himself. For me, though, it was a chance for younger people in EPA to understand that this was a flesh and blood human being, not just an icon or historical figure, but someone who struggled with difficult issues just as we do today, and who did so in such a principled way. I had the great privilege of introducing him, and it felt like I was introducing one of the apostles. He would have objected to this characterization, but it was appropriate.
The last time I saw Bill was in the spring of 2016. He was in Washington with the Puget Sound Partnership to encourage the Administration to support efforts to improve the coordination of federal agencies in that area. The EPA was a stakeholder but not the only one; both the Department of Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the Corps of Engineers were even more heavily involved. What I remember is the universal respect in which he was held, and his steady, reasoned voice about the need for collaboration in which every agency would play its own role, but do so in full and robust engagement with all parties.
In past eras, in both Republican and Democratic Administrations, it seemed that when any of those values were threatened, you could feel the building shake. I think that’s why he found the current period to be so distressing, not for partisan reasons, but because it seems as if all three core values are under attack. The parallels between Ruckelshaus’ challenges in the 1970’s and 80’s and today, both on matters of environmental protection and even more on the foundation stones of our constitutional government, are inescapable.
My favorite quote from a 1990’s EPA Oral History Interview with Bill is the following. In it he is talking about his experience when he started with the new EPA.
The quote is ostensibly about the complexities of environmental protection, but it is just as much about what it means to have true humility. As Maya Angelou observed, humility is not modesty. Modesty is pretending you don’t have gifts that you do have, and she had no time for it. Humility, on the other hand, recognizes the difficulties in getting things done, how little we all know, how much we depend on each other, and treats all people with charity. For all of his greatness, Bill Ruckelshaus had that kind of humility in abundance.
The EPA Alumni Association summed it up well in its announcement about Bill’s passing: