William D. Ruckelshaus, who died Wednesday at his Medina home after an inspiring life, was both a political titan and a beacon for how to negotiate intensely divided times.
He left an immense legacy in his 87 years. America knows him as the upright cabinet figure who served under two Republican presidents as an effective Environmental Protection Agency leader, and resigned when President Richard Nixon asked him to sign off on firings to block the Watergate investigation. With monumental orders for waterway cleanups, air-pollution limits and a national DDT ban, Ruckelshaus thwarted streams of pollution across the nation.
Seattle knew him as a longtime resident who championed numerous environmental causes, including restoring salmon and stopping the spread of Puget Sound pollution. His institutional influence on the region can be felt in the ongoing work of the Puget Sound Partnership, where he was the first leader, and the William Ruckelshaus Center, a joint effort of Washington State University and the University of Washington. True to its namesake’s form, the latter agency ambitiously crafts solutions for sweeping public issues.
His native Indiana knew him as a giant among a dynasty of Republican politicians now in its third generation there. He set a record by being elected Indiana House of Representatives majority leader during his first term.
“His greatest piece of advice to me was that if you want to play politics, go to Washington (D.C.). If you really want to effect change and help people’s lives, stay in your state,” said a nephew, Indiana state Sen. John Ruckelshaus.
Washington state had great luck when a career move with Weyerhaeuser brought William Ruckelshaus here to stay. He publicly backed environmental causes well into his 80s and preached the gospel that steady, robust regulation would work to the benefit of industry if principled government did its job well.
Today, the world is without William Ruckelshaus, but not without his powerful teachings. He accomplished much in the government and business realms. Even more should be credited to him for reminding Americans that governance is a matter of serving the greater good, not clinging to power without principles. His example resonated across the political spectrum.
“He was really good at going into very controversial situations and, with his temperament and demeanor, being a calming influence and a true consensus-builder,” John Ruckelshaus said of his uncle. “Boy, is that needed today.”
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