William Ruckelshaus swearing in as the first Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Seen from left to right: President Richard M. Nixon, William Ruckelshaus, Jill Ruckelshaus (wife), Chief Justice Warren Burger.

The year 1973 was a terrible time. My wife Georgia and I, fresh out of Berkeley, were trying to make a go of it on our family ranch in eastern Washington. There was a drought and the crops were poor. On the national stage, President Nixon’s deceit and lies had mired our country in a nightmare called Watergate. 

However, by that fall there was hope. On the ranch, unexpected rains brought the possibility of a better crop year ahead. And in Washington, DC, two principled Republicans, Elliot Richardson and Bill Ruckelshaus, resigned their positions after refusing the President’s demand that they fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating Nixon. Months later, Nixon resigned and the nightmare was over.

Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus chose their duty to our nation (and honoring their promises to Congress)  over their own career interests. Their example marked a turning point in the Watergate scandal, and inspired me, a lifelong Democrat, to reconsider my belief that partisanship would always prevail. 

Prior to Watergate, Bill had served as the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and acting head of the F.B.I., where he forced the resignation of the angry man who wanted to head the F.B.I., and turned out later to be Deep Throat. Ruckelshaus’s integrity and commitment to the public good were hallmarks of his tenure there, and foreshadowed what was to come. 

Following a second stint at EPA, Bill moved his family to Seattle in 1985 and served in many capacities to advance the public good in the state of Washington, notably in the effort to clean up and protect Puget Sound. In 2004, he founded the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a uniquely successful partnership of the University of Washington and Washington State University. (I have the honor to serve on its board.)

The Center draws on university resources to help stakeholders solve tricky and complex impasses across the Northwest. Their landmark work around how to manage Spirit Lake after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, how to help Washingtonians better access health care, and how to facilitate collaborative decisions on regional environmental issues are a few of their successes. 

On September 13, Bill’s leadership and inspirational public service were recognized as he stepped down as chairman of the Center’s advisory board to a role as chair emeritus. As numerous tributes at the celebratory lunch made clear, his example still stands bright and clear. Bill’s decision to do the right thing in 1973 reminds us, even in today’s hyper- partisan political environment, of the importance of ethics and principles that transcend party affiliation. His like seems scarce today. 

This year it has rained generously at the family ranch, which has endured over the decades since. There is a glimmer of hope that will bear fruit in the coming year. 

Image: Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, Yorba Linda, CA.

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