After losing a 1977 congressional race, Marvin Durning could have been forgiven for walking away from public service. In a real heartbreaker, Mr. Durning was the odds-on favorite to win, but his Republican challenger proved better at getting out the vote.
Fortunately, Mr. Durning had a tireless energy and quickly moved on to a three-year stint as chief of enforcement for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Carter.
Jean Durning, his wife of 55 years, recalls him saying “What can I do to be helpful in this world? You’ve got to have a lot of irons in the fire.”
Mr. Durning, a prominent environmental attorney and Democrat who also ran unsuccessfully for attorney general and governor, died last Wednesday (Oct. 16) after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 84.
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Although he never won elected office, his efforts as a lawyer still can be felt today. In partnership with civic groups, Mr. Durning helped make way for Seattle’s Foster Island marsh trail and fought to protect the free-flowing Columbia River from an airport expansion in Portland. He also kept billboards off most parts of interstate highways in Washington.
Friends and family describe Mr. Durning as a devoted husband and father who spread his passion for protecting the environment to those around him.
His wife, Jean, became Northwest representative of the Wilderness Society when it played a key role in preserving old-growth forests, and son Alan is founding executive director of Sightline Institute, an environmental think tank in Seattle.
At the age of 11, Alan accompanied his dad to Port Angeles during the 1976 gubernatorial race for a speech on energy policy.
“He talked about how expensive and dangerous nuclear power was, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, how does he know all of that,’ ” Alan said. “The standing ovation they gave him made me feel like I was lucky.”
Mr. Durning was born in 1929 in New Orleans to an Irish Catholic father and a Jewish mother. Money was tight and became tighter still when Mr. Durning’s father died in a 1940 car accident. His widowed mother, Celia, then managed to support the family with a small jewelry business.
Alan recalled a conversation with his father in which the elder Durning attributed his environmental activism to growing up in the South during racial segregation. Nature provided a respite from social injustice throughout his childhood.
Mr. Durning left the South to attend Dartmouth College, where he graduated summa cum laude, and later studied philosophy as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.
During the Korean War, he served as a U.S. Navy gunnery officer, then became an intelligence officer in a secret Cold War office in Munich.
Stateside once again, he attended Yale Law School and met Jean, who was working toward a master’s in teaching.
“He picked me up at church,” she recalled, laughing.
They married five months later and moved to Seattle in 1959. Neither had family here, but Mr. Durning carried fond memories of Seattle from his college summer travels. Before long, they became involved in local civic affairs.
“One of the reasons Seattle was an interesting place to move to is you could get involved quickly,” Jean said. “In Boston or Philadelphia, you had to be part of an old family. But in Seattle, you could plunge right in.”
Seattle resident Joan Singler, a longtime friend who worked on Mr. Durning’s campaigns for governor and Congress, moved to Seattle from Detroit with her husband, Edward, three years earlier. Both men met while studying for the state bar and bonded over politics.
Singler, who also joined Jean as an activist in the civil-rights movement, remembers Mr. Durning as a tireless campaigner with a strong intellect and a knack for remembering names and faces.
“He could meet someone in a crowd of 50 one day, then see them again weeks later and remember them,” Singler said.
On a more whimsical note, she added, Mr. Durning had a signature style: blue corduroys and white shirt. “We’d even go camping together, and Marvin would have on a white shirt,” she joked.
At age 65, Mr. Durning was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Still, he remained active and wrote two books: “World Turned Upside Down,” a history of his naval intelligence unit, and “Beyond the Baths of All the Western Stars,” a memoir.
“Even when he was fighting Parkinson’s, he was trying to make a contribution,” his son Alan said. “He was my hero.”
In addition to Jean and Alan, Mr. Durning is survived by a daughter, Susan Stroming, of Issaquah, and another son, Jonathan, of Salem, Ore., as well as eight grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. at Horizon House, 900 University St., in Seattle. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Sightline Institute or Group Health Foundation.
Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @amyemartinez