Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society, October 2, 2005

Gaylord Nelson:  Not a Unitarian Universalist, But...

Presentation by Mary Mullen


(Portions in blue were read by members of the congregation.)



Chalice Lighting

From Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker’s sermon “Love First”  which she gave Sept. 6, 2005, at the Starr King School for the Ministry where Rev. Parker is the President and Professor of Theology.


We must learn again to live with reverence.  Reverence is a form of love.  It is response to life that falls on its knees before the rising sun and bows down before the mountains.  It puts its palms together in the presence of the night sky and the myriad galaxies and recognizes as Langston Hughes told us, “beautiful are the stars, beautiful too are the faces of my people.”   Reverence greets all humanity as sacred.  It genuflects before the splendor of the grass and the magnificence of the trees.  It respects the complexity, the beauty and the magnitude of creation and does not presume to undo its intricate miracles.  Instead, it gives life reverent attention – seeking to know, understand and cooperate with life’s ways. ...


Children's Stories

Today upstairs we are going to be learning some things about a man from Wisconsin called Gaylord Nelson.  This is what he looked like.  (Show books.)  He was born way up in northern Wisconsin in a little town called Clear Lake.  It’s about 200 miles away from here.  It would take about 4 hours to drive there.  (Show map.)


We are talking about him today because he would make a good Unitarian Universalist.  He very much loved the beautiful land, and the pure water and air in Wisconsin, and because of his love of nature when he was Governor of Wis he got our state to buy a lot of land for public parks and forests so that people would have a chance to enjoy nature.  How many of you have been to a state park this summer?  Have any of you gone to Blue Mounds State Park?  That was one of the first ones he got for us. 


He also believed that everyone should be treated fairly no matter what the color of their skin was.   Today no one would think that black soldiers and white soldiers shouldn’t serve together in the National Guard.  Well, it was Gaylord Nelson who sponsored the law in Wisconsin that integrated the Wisconsin National Guard so that black and white soldiers would be in the same units.  It was one of the first bills he introduced when he was elected to the Wisconsin Senate.This was back when I was 8 years old. 


Another thing everyone knows him for was for starting the first Earth Day celebration.  That was back in 1970, about the time some of your parents may have been born.  It’s been celebrated ever since and now Earth Day is celebrated all around the world on April 22.


I thought you might like to know a little bit about Gaylord Nelson’s childhood.  Like your parents, his parents wanted him to be a good boy, but sometimes he wasn’t.  Now when I was a kid, sometimes my mother would spank me when I did something mean or wrong.  Why don’t you turn to your neighbor and tell your neighbor what happens to you when you do something mean.  Anyone want to guess what happened to Gaylord?  If his mother caught him doing something mean, she might just give him a couple of licks with a switch!  She would do this especially if he would make fun of someone about their religion or if they were poor.  Another thing she didn’t like was lying.  But his father would do something different.  What to you think his father would do when one of his kids did something wrong?  Actually his father would lecture him for about an hour - like just about the whole amount of time you spend downstairs on a Sunday.  Which punishment do you think the Nelson kids preferred?


He wasn’t exactly an angel back then.  Every year the turtles in his town would migrate from the main lakes to another lake to hibernate, and they’d go through the back yards of town.  Guess what he and his friends would do?  They would try to confuse those turtles.  They would turn them around or put them behind obstacles like trees or long grass.  But they learned that those turtles didn’t get confused at all.  I don’t know if he got punished for that.  But Gaylord said that in his little town of Clear Lake, it wasn’t only your parents who were checking whether you were doing the right thing.  He said, “If you did something wrong, some neighbor would paddle your butt or correct you or call your parents.”  You just couldn’t get away with doing something wrong.  He said living in a small town was good because it encourages and allows you to be an individual, but it demands civility.  By that he meant that in a small town you had to be polite because everyone knew you and if you weren’t you might not have friends after awhile.  When he got to be an adult, he was such a nice guy that he was voted the most liked Senator in the United States Senate.


By the way Gaylord really loved animals.  He always had pets -a dog, pigeons, a skunk, even a great horned owl.  He raised chickens too.


I want to tell you one more story about Gaylord Nelson.  It’s about a nickel and a dime and how he fooled his younger brother and how he felt about it later.  (Show nickel and dime.)  Which one will buy more, this big nickel or this little dime?)  OK, here’s the story.  One day Gaylord’s little brother Stannard had a dime and Gaylord had a nickel.  He convinced his little brother to trade with him so that Stannard had the big nickel and he, Gaylord, got the smaller dime.  Then they went down to the store and bought ice cream cones.  Of course Gaylord got the bigger ice cream cone because a dime is worth twice as much as a nickel.  When his little brother Stannard saw that Gaylord had a much bigger ice cream cone, he didn’t say a word, but 2 huge tears rolled down his face.  What do you think Gaylord did?  (Nothing!!!!)  But he really felt bad even long after he grew up.  He felt so bad that 70 years later he sent his brother Stannard a check for $500 along with a note.  The note said,  “I have computed the compound interest of that nickel I cheated you out of 70 years ago, plus criminal penalties, embarrassment, etc.  This may get me an interview with a friend of St. Peter, which is as close as I’m likely to get.”  In other words, he still felt guilty after all those years and he wanted to make up for it.


OK, I hope you learned that Gaylord Nelson was a kind of ordinary boy who would get in trouble sometimes, but he felt bad when he did mean things even as a child, and when he grew up, he was a great champion of equal rights and for the environment.  And I hope you also learned that it’s never too late to make up for something that you did that hurt someone.



Presentation  "Gaylord Nelson, Not a Unitarian, But..."



When I agreed to lead a service on Gaylord Nelson, it was because I knew Gaylord was a man many of us admired for his work for the environment and that he also had supported other initiatives that are embodied in our UU principles.  Like probably most of you, I knew he was the founder of Earth Day in 1970, which has now become a world-wide event.  But even though I am a native Wisconsinite and lived through his tenure as a state senator, Wisconsin Governor, and a U.S. Senator, I didn’t know until I attended his memorial service this summer that he was a key figure in civil rights legislation and opportunities for the poor and that he opposed the Vietnam War almost from the start.  How a regular guy from a little town in northern Wisconsin could be such a leader was also a mystery to me. 


So when I set out to do my research, I had several questions in mind.  One was, “What was there about his upbringing that made him into the liberal leader that he was?”  I thought that would be useful information to us because we are a “village” trying to raise kids  whom we’d like to see go in that direction.  A second question was, “What was there about him or his techniques that made him so able to draw support from both Republicans and Democrats?”  Again, I wondered what lessons we could draw to make us successful in carrying out our principles as UU’s - principles that are very similar to his although he was brought up Methodist and as an adult never attended church.  Another question was, “What did he support and accomplish besides the short list I knew?”


Oh, I suppose you might be wondering why you each got a few dictionary pages as you came in.  It’s because when Gaylord Nelson was going off to a dinner that he suspected might be boring, he often tore a few pages out of the dictionary and then studied them when he got tired of listening to what was going on.  It was part of his life-long fascination with words, inherited and nurtured in his family.   So - if you find yourself in that condition today - don’t hesitate to do what Gaylord would.  You might get a chance to share a word or two before the morning is over.



So - my first topic is the question about what kind of an up-bringing did Gaylord Nelson have that contributed to his becoming a champion of many of the values that we have as UU’s.  He was born in northern Wisconsin to a father who was a country doctor and a mother who had been a nurse (June 16, 1916), 3rd living child.  Clearly, their position in the community was high, but I think it’s important to note that both of these are helping professions.  His father would often do gratis work for poor people which was about half of his patients.  Others offered in-kind payment such as a hind-quarter of beef, a chicken, or a load of wood.  The family often had an extra child from the community living with them, a kid who needed to get away from a abuse or some other problem at home.  The work of caring for the family fell to his mother mostly, because his father was gone on medical calls most of the time, often late into the night.  Their home also served as a collecting point for clothes and other items donated to the Red Cross.  During the Depression the Nelson kids would arrive home to find a hobo sitting in a rocking chair in the living room either talking to their mother or waiting to talk to her.  It wasn’t unusual for up to 10 hobos a day to stop at the Nelson home.  His mother, who was part Irish, was very warm and outgoing, optimistic and fun-loving.  It was his mother who spent many hours with Gaylord talking about “anything and everything” and who kindled his interest in nature, plants and wildlife.” 


Both parents were very active politically in the Progressive wing of the Republican party, but it was his dad who usually took Gaylord to political events.  There’s a great story of a time when Gaylord’s father took him along to hear a political speech by Bob La Follette, the son of Fighting Bob La Follette.  Gaylord was just 10 years old at the time.  On the way home after the speech, his dad asked Gaylord,  “ Do you think you might go into politics?”  Young Gaylord answered, “I would, but I’m afraid by then Bob La Follette may not have left any problems for me to solve.”  Oh, the optimism of inexperience!   


Besides taking care of the kids and home, Gaylord’s mother was the district Progressive Party chair, president of the Clear Lake School Board, head of the Red Cross, and a leader and activist in causes including family planning and women’s suffrage, so Gaylord soaked up the idea of community involvement from both parents.


Although his parents hoped Gaylord would become a doctor and he had had a lot of experience helping his dad on doctor’s calls, it was politics that really interested him.  His high school graduation speech was entitled “The New Deal.”   The speech was indicative of the direction he was going.      


Another important part of his upbringing was the dinner table conversation.  It was his dad who helped focus attention on issues far beyond “Please pass the potatoes” or “She’s kicking me under the table.”  He would ask the family to respond to big questions like:  “What caused the First World War? “ or “Why did Chicago get to be so big?”  Imagine how that would stimulate a kid to think!


The impression I got was that Gaylord learned about service from his family.  The fact that his parents were both so involved in progressive politics helped him develop a progressive political outlook and an outlet for making those values into reality.  He also learned how to be a forthright and honest person by seeing those characteristics in his parents and being urged to exhibit them himself through his dad’s lectures, his mother’s switching, and his whole village that helped him learn what decent behavior is.  His love of nature came from direct experience and from his mother.  He learned to look at the big picture from those mealtime questions.


Thus, Lesson Number 1:  If we want a generation to grow up to support looking out for others and working for the community, we have to look out for more than just our own families.  We have to demand that our own and other children in the community respect others who are different from themselves, and we have to demand honesty.  We have to show them by example how to be politically active and we have to take them to hear political speakers who are moving in a positive direction.  We might also have to plant the seed:  “Do you think you might want to go into politics some day?”  If we want our children to defend our environment, we have to give them a chance to learn appreciation from what we say while providing direct experience with nature.  And we have to pose some big questions to them so they can start to see things as systems.


OK, who needs some more dictionary pages?




My second question was, what was there about Gaylord Nelson or his techniques that would make him so able to draw support from both Republicans and Democrats?   Hardly anyone seems able to do that anymore.   Maybe it’s the times, but maybe it is just plain political know-how.  When Gaylord Nelson came into the Wisconsin Senate, he was one of 3 Democrats facing 27 Republicans.  When he was governor of the state of Wisconsin, he had a Democratic majority either only in one house or neither.  In the US Senate, only 4% of the Congress could be called environmentalists when he arrived in 1963. Yet after 7 years he had launched the wildly popular Earth Day and in the next decade landmark environmental legislation of all kinds came out of Washington.  How did ever manage to get his programs accepted and passed?  Call this Political Effectiveness 101.


To preview, how Gaylord Nelson did it was by a combination of techniques.  I think his strongest point was his love of people and ability to be a friend and entertainer to people on both sides of the aisle.  That got him in the door.  Next, he wouldn’t hold a grudge or allow a differing point of view to dictate whom he would enjoy.  Civility kept the door open.  He had good ideas that he knew how to publicize, and he defended their cost as necessary to maintain the quality of life in the future.  He didn’t give up when something failed the first time. He also knew how to compromise and how to call in his political chips when necessary to save a good program.  I could illustrate each of these points and go on for 30 minutes, but I aim to cover only some of them in six.


Let me give an example of his wit that showed up quite well while he was still in Law School.  In 1940 Gaylord didn’t bother to take any of his tests because he had been out campaigning for young Bob La Follette, so he signed up for an overload credits without getting permission.  Soon he was called up before the dean.  Here’s what passed between them.  Dean:  You are barely passing your courses.  How do you possibly think you can take more credits and pass them?  Gaylord said: I can just as successfully not study twenty credits as I cannot study 15.  He was allowed to take 20 credits, and as in the past, he got through all of them with just one point to spare.


As a storyteller, I imagine he was something like Garrison Keillor in Prairie Home Companion except that he told his stories about Clear Lake.  He also would listen to other people’s stories. Here’s what Senator McGovern said about how Gaylord made his way into the US Senate as a freshman “Gaylord was intrigued by other politicians.  Some he didn’t like very well, but there were very few that he walked away from.  He was interested in finding out what made people tick, what was their background, how did they come into the Senate, what do they do when they’re not on the Senate floor, what drives them.  I used to see him sitting in the Senate sometimes – some fellow would be making a speech and Gaylord would be studying the guy, not so much listening to what he was saying but trying to figure out what makes this guy function the way he does.  … He would come up to people in the cloakroom or the dining room and listen to stories from senators he didn’t agree with on anything – Eastland, Long, Stennis, and others.  He got real joy out of listening to their stories and backgrounds.  It was a great political asset, and it sort of endeared him to people.  Here’s a guy who isn’t all that enamored of the dignified ways of the Senate.  You could see him sitting around a restaurant or bar in Clear Lake telling those stories.  He became a real person rather than just another vote to be counted.  People saw him as a human being and that increased his legislative effectiveness.  He could go to a committee chairman and say, ‘Look, I’d appreciate your help.’  He was rather effective at moving things he was interested in.  He wasn’t a master of the Senate rules, but he knew enough about the cloakroom and the dining room and the back rooms so that he was quite at home with the Senate process.” (pp. 187-188 in The Man From Clear Lake)   It also helped that Gaylord’s wife Carrie Lee loved to host parties at their home.  She was known for being astute at picking an interesting mix of people from both major parties.  The parties flowed with alcohol, boisterousness, and challenging conversation.  They were fun, but they definitely benefited Nelson politically. 


It has to be said that alcohol was part of Gaylord Nelson’s daily ritual and aided him in politics.  Recalling a compromise on a thorny tax bill when he was governor,  Gaylord said, “We resolved the whole damn thing over a bottle of beer in a tavern.”  Alcohol was a big factor in Washington as well, but civility was even more important . Gaylord Nelson believed in civility, no matter what.  It’s a human institution,” he said of the Congress.  “There were people who, if they proposed something, it automatically had a lot of opposition.  Some people dislike people who don’t agree with them.  But I never personalized it.  If you’re mad and you carry a grudge, it hurts you more than the person you hold the grudge against.  They may not even know about it.”(p. 189, The Man From Clear Lake)


In a 2-party situation, political success requires some compromise, and Gaylord was good at compromising in more than one sense of the word.  For example, when he was a new governor, he learned that the Republicans planned to turn down all of his appointments.  So after his first appointments were turned down, he started choosing people who would have some natural support in the other party “which would be politically tough for them and politically profitable for me.”  By making it hard for certain senators to vote against specific appointees, he got his way.                           

Another one of Gaylord Nelson’s political tools was to call in his political chips when it was absolutely necessary.  In Wisconsin he did this in order to pass his revolutionary ORAP - Outdoor Recreation Act Program - over the opposition of the majority Republican party.  A Republican businessman who liked what Gaylord was doing found a way to let him know that in an emergency he could get a YES vote on any piece of legislation Gaylord needed a YES vote for.  All Gaylord had to do was let him know.  Gaylord called in the chip which was a positive vote from a Republican Senator who had been voting NO. The ORAP bill passed the Senate by that one surprise YES vote.


I could go on with this political primer, but if I do, I know you will have every word memorized on your dictionary pages.  In review, some guidelines for legislative success might be (1) Initiate programs that benefit a lot of people, (2) Work hard for them,  (3) Genuinely like people and help them have fun together with you (4) Compromise in a way that doesn’t offend your conscience but does get something done that you want,  (5) Call in your political chips when you have to, and finally, although I didn’t mention this, (6) Never give up.





In the Prairie Fire blurb I promised to discuss how Gaylord Nelson ‘s work demonstrated and upheld a number of our UUA principles.  I shall do that by listing some legislation Gaylord Nelson initiated or co-sponsored.


Very impressive to me was how Gaylord Nelson came to support integration of the Armed Forces.  During WW II he was one of 4 white officers in charge of a segregated company of 200 black enlisted men.  His Black company had the worst accommodations and no recreational facilities  and he also discovered that on a trip to Washington, D.C. with a black officer friend, there was no hotel they could stay in together and few restaurants that would serve them both.  It’s no coincidence that one of the very first bills he proposed when he came to the Wisconsin legislature in 1949 was integration of the Wisconsin National Guard.  Clearly he understood our first principle of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and our second principle of “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”   Later on, in his first term as a US Senator in 1963 he immediately signed onto no less than 5 civil rights bills and then became a co-sponsor of President Kennedy’s sweeping civil rights legislation later that year. 


 Gaylord’s social concerns were evident when he was a new governor in 1959.  Two of his proposals directly related to justice, equity and compassion were passed:  increased worker compensation benefits and a new center to treat emotionally disturbed children.  In his second term he got the GOP legislature to pass his proposals for a $5 million dollar student loan fund, a state commission on aging, and increasing the state’s share of funding for education. 


As a federal legislator Gaylord became known for his work for the underdog.  He eagerly signed onto the War on Poverty.  He initiated numbers of related bills during his time there.  Operation Mainstream made federal grants to state and local government and nonprofit groups for conservation and recreation projects.  His Teacher Corps proposal was adopted by President Johnson.  It sent recent college graduates to poor schools after 3 months of intensive training with experienced teachers.  He fought against Nixon’s attempt to close down the Office of Economic Opportunity which had had the Job Corps, Head Start and Vista under its aegis.  In Nixon’s last month in office he signed Gaylord Nelson’s bill creating a permanent, independent Legal Services Corporation to provide legal aid to the poor.  There’s more, but that’s enough to give you the drift.


He was also involved in legislation to protect consumers.  He took on both the automobile industry and the pharmaceutical industry.


Our 5th principle is about “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.”  Gaylord Nelson, though he wasn’t a UU, would have fit right in with us on this too.  He went to Washington opposing the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee.  During the Vietnam War, he felt really uneasy about  the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 and wanted to offer an amendment that would have made it clear that direct military engagement was to be avoided.  He was persuaded not to present it and voted for the unamended Resolution. However, from then on he consistently voted against increased appropriations for the War until its end in 1973 regardless of the effect that could have had on his Senate career.   His most famous words in opposition to the Vietnam War came in May 1965 in the US Senate when he voted along with only 2 other Senators against increased appropriations for Vietnam that had been requested by President Johnson.  In opposing the vote he said, “I need my conscience more than the President needs my vote.”


But of course we know him best for his idea of Earth Day that has been commemorated every year since 1970.  His environmental work relates to our 7th principle “Respect of the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Ever since he had got to Washington, he had been casting around for some way to bring the environment onto the front burner.  He had even convinced President Kennedy to make an environmental tour in 1963, but during the tour Kennedy strayed from the topic in practically every speech.  This was right after the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty ratification vote in the Senate.   All the reporters were more concerned about that, and at that time there basically weren’t any environmental reporters.  But he didn’t give up.  On a plane ride in California in 1969 he was reading an article about the anti-war teach-ins, and “It popped into my head.  That’s it!  Why not have an environmental teach-in and get everyone involved?”  As we say, the rest is history.


I want to share one of the ways that he himself helped people understand how important the environment is.  He put it into his 1995 Earth Day address, the 25th anniversary of the first Earth Day.  Part of the quote is on the handout about his environmental accomplishments.  Listen to the whole quote:  “I have a friend whose guiding theology for all political matters is the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.  He could never quite understand that there is a direct and beneficial connection between a healthy environment and a prosperous economy until I described the connection in the jargon of his business world.  I said to him, ‘Look at it this way and the connection becomes obvious.  It is this – The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.  All economic activity is dependent upton that environment with its underlying resource base.  When the environment is finally forced to file un chapter 11 because its resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, irretrievably compromised, then, the economy goes down into bankruptcy with it because the economy is just a subset within the ecological system.”


The decade after 1970 showed that Gaylord Nelson had touched a chord with the American people.  Take a look at your handout for a list of the major legislation passed then. 


Final Words - From Gaylord Nelson’s 1980 Earth Day address 

In the 1970s, a sufficiently large and dispersed group of people recognized the fragility and finite nature of the Earth’s ecosystem, understood that “everything is connected to everything else,” and accepted the responsibility not only to set straight the mistakes of the past but to avoid repeating them in the future.


So long as the human species inhabits the Earth, proper management of its resources will be the most fundamentala issue we face.  Our very survival will depend upon whether or not we are able to preserve, protect and defend our environment.  We are not free to decide about whether or not our environment “matters.”  It does matter, apart from any political exigencies.  We disregard the needs of our ecosystem at our mortal peril.


That was the great lesson of Earth Day.  It must never be forgotten.



Gaylord Nelson

Born June 4, 1916

Wisconsin Senator – 1949-1959

Wisconsin Governor - 1959-1963

US Senator - 1963-1981

Counselor to the Wilderness Society – 1981-2005

Died July 3, 2005