Editor’s Note: A memorial service was held this past week at the SAM Sculpture Park for Bill Ruckelshaus, who died in 2019. One of the speakers was Martha Kongsgaard, a friend and collaborator on environmental projects with Ruckelshaus. Below is an edited version of the remarks she gave at the occasion of tributes.
I am honored to give a perspective on my friend Bill Ruckelshaus, a man whose reputation, even in the painful and looming presence of his absence, still toggles implausibly between his status as iconic national hero with unshakable integrity; and the man whom The Washington Post wonderfully referred to as “hulking, rawboned and bespectacled”; and lastly as an unintentional environmental trailblazer. (Bill said being head of EPA was a little bit like running a 100-yard dash while simultaneously getting an appendectomy.)
He was the pitch-perfect model of the deeply decent Republican public servant; the recipient of the Presidential medal of Freedom (from a Democrat he voted for); a potential vice-presidential running mate; the man who had the nerve (or naiveté) , while at the helm of Texas-based Browning Ferris, to expand its waste management muscle into the belly of the beast, New York City, helping to break mob control of what Tony Soprano claimed as his “recession proof line of business.” What part of that could have seemed like a prudent plan to Bill: did he learn nothing from his college days in New Joisey?
I used to kid him that he was a kind of intellectually gifted Forrest Gump. He was at the center of all consequential issues of the second half of the 20th century. He was head of FBI, the AG of the United States, the founding director of the EPA and then again, the mop-up director under Reagan, mob buster, US Canadian salmon czar — all in one person. Know that we are a grateful nation for his having been here/there/everywhere on our behalf and for the family’s sharing of this public servant.
And at the other end of the toggle was the sudden widower with twin girls, then the lucky husband and father to three more children with the keystone, center pole, cornerstone of the whole Bill Ruckelshaus enterprise, private and public, his more than worthy mate, Jill, that so-called Ruckelshaus Republican, the formidable renegade “Cabinet Wife” in the Nixon administration fighting for women’s rights as human rights around the world with Gloria and Bela and a couple of Bettys. Jill may have that familiar Ruckelshausian/Hoosier brand of wry knowing and restraint, but she could pound a podium and rile a convention center audience onto their feet in ways that were not native to Bill.
On the private side was the father, husband, father-in-law, brother, grandfather, sibling, uncle, as well as a deep reader, a student of history, a beloved, dry-witted raconteur, social and loyal to the core. Affable, outward, confident but without much self-reference, he was animated by no more complicated a desire than to share an afternoon fishing with friends.
He was a rabid Seahawk fan. But most particularly, at every stop across the country where they hauled the five kids and their scores of pets, any place that allowed for a growing season or two and a home with a backyard that could be reimagined, Bill gardened — roses, dahlias, dirt, the wonders of the bounty of planet earth that he protected the length of his life on a vast canvas from the other Washington and then later, here in Salmon Nation that he and Jill claimed as their adopted home.
He was, after all, a mere mortal. Bill famously was an underachiever his first two years at Princeton and in fact was put on “cut probation” for having skipped class more than any student in his sophomore year. I would love to have known what he was up to. The provost of Bill’s alma mater let his beloved but high-expectation-ed father, John, know this, which meant that Bill spent most of the summer vacation at home basically getting his meals under the door, as he said.
As he was packing to go back to school his mother came into his room waving a notice saying, “You have been accepted!”
“To what,” he inquired, “I haven’t applied for anything.”
“The Army!” she replied.
He’d been drafted, one of only six other Princeton men who had also been called up. He spent 18 months under the shadow of Mt Rainier in Washington state as a drill sergeant at Fort Lewis. He returned chastened and matured to Princeton, graduating cum laude in 1957 and on to Harvard Law.
His father, John, a colossus in Bill’s life, tragically died in 1960 in a devastating fishing accident, only 60 years old. On the way to the cemetery, his mother asked Bill if he had ever wondered how he had been “accepted” into the Army. She admitted that his father, who had been a former draft board chairman, had convinced his buddies at the local board that Bill would be better off in the Army than in the Ivy League cutting class.
Bill, appropriately appalled, responded, “But mother, there was a war going on. I could have been shot!”
To which she, in a dry Ruckelshaus delivery no doubt, explained: “That was a risk your father and I were willing to take.”
I met Bill in his so called “retirement,” as I was implausibly, inexplicably, and probably undeservedly squished between two giants whose influence was incalculable on this place on earth, and whose force fields I was steered by and formed by for nearly a decade, and that was Billy Frank, Jr. and Bill Ruckelshaus. That changed my life.
I would marvel at the two of them, very different men, but after the same thing. What was it in their cultural and inherited DNA passed to them seemingly prehistorically that created these deeply decent partners? Billy Frank, a proud bearer of tribal tradition and a willing translator across cultures, and Bill Ruckelshaus, a titan with enormous reach and a classic midwestern temperament, who knew no stranger. More discrete than brash, more serious than trivial, they were both confidently uncomplicated in a world where we strangely prize the neurotic, the edgy, the new, and the off-kilter.
They were fearless advocates for what was good for their people’s interest and the planet’s interest, which in the end they understood was good for the greater public’s interest — out seven generations. They worked unsentimentally but with great humanity, humility, and without rancor, as warriors, peacemakers, consensus builders, humorists, and finally visionaries.
I was able to marvel from afar at the historic and majestic significance of Bill as world citizen and leader, willing mentor, and role model, and later at the Puget Sound Partnership, as a colleague. He’d ask for my counsel, which in truth felt a little like my trying to give Ty Cobb lessons about how to steal home. He let you get used to it. He could seamlessly telescope out from a story that took place in the Oval Office to a meeting room at the Swinomish tribal casino or at Grange Hall in Budd Inlet, and make everyone feel heard and important, while he recalibrated for all of us the standards by which statesmanship and citizenship should be judged and applied.
And without my noticing along the way, I was allowed somehow, implausibly in retrospect, to love him like a father and he knew it. He was not an Italianate or Mediterranean loud emoter, our Bill, let’s face it. But he let you know, he let me know, that love for him was not a zero-sum game, that there was enough to go around, and for that I am forever thankful.
If grief is the distillation of desire, then we are grieving, not because this is tragic or unexpected but because it’s a changed world without Bill. Those of us who were lucky enough to hitch our wagons to the audacity of his long-view optimism, vibrato-less calm, and tenacity know that there is still so much work to do. And to the extent that we can get our work done in a way that respects one another, the rule of law and nature’s limits, we will be working on Bill’s legacy.
Jill, the student in English literature at Harvard summoned a line from Yeats in an interview with The Washington Post about the pain related to having to leave their then adopted and beloved state of Washington after Bill agreed to return to Reagan’s troubled EPA. “Yeats,” she remembered, “has a line in one of his poems about leaving. The refrain refers to “another crack in the heart.” And it’s not fatal and your heart isn’t completely broken, but there’s a crack in the heart. And when you’re leaving people, and places that you’ve loved, you’ll be alright in time, you’ll be alright. But there is a crack there.”
We will be forever wondering what Bill would have made of history yet to be. We have suffered a consequential crack in our hearts. We are left flying half-blind into an unknowable future without him.