William Ruckelshaus

William Ruckelshaus

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William Doyle Ruckelshaus was born in Indianapolis on 24th July, 1932. After graduating from Princeton University and Harvard Law School he became a lawyer.

In 1960 Ruckelshaus was appointed Deputy Attorney General of Indiana. A member of the Republican Party he was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the United States Senate in 1968.

In 1969 President Richard Nixon appointed Ruckelshaus as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Division for the U.S. Department of Justice. The following year he became head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, died on 2nd May, 1972. Rather than appoint an insider such as Mark Felt, Nixon gave the job to L. Patrick Gray. A month after taking office the Watergate break-in took place. Soon afterwards Nixon ordered Gray to interfere in the FBI investigation of the burglary.

During congressional confirmation hearings in March 1973, L. Patrick Gray admitted that he had passed files from the FBI's Watergate investigation to White House counsel John Dean. Gray was forced to resign on 27th April, 1973, after the disclosure that he destroyed papers from the White House safe of E. Howard Hunt, the former CIA agent who had organized the Watergate break-in. However he was never indicted for any Watergate-related crimes.

Richard Nixon now appointed Ruckelshaus as acting Director of the FBI. Later that year he became Deputy Attorney General of the United States Department of Justice.

On 18th May, 1973, Attorney General Elliot Richardson appointed Archibald Cox as special prosecutor, with unprecedented authority and independence to investigate the alleged Watergate cover-up and illegal activity in the 1972 presidential campaign.

The following month John Dean testified that at a meeting with Richard Nixon on 15th April, the president had remarked that he had probably been foolish to have discussed his attempts to get clemency for E. Howard Hunt with Charles Colson. Dean concluded from this that Nixon's office might be bugged. On Friday, 13th July, Alexander P. Butterfield appeared before the committee and was asked about if he knew whether Nixon was recording meetings he was having in the White House. Butterfield reluctantly admitted details of the tape system which monitored Nixon's conversations.

Alexander P. Butterfield also said that he knew "it was probably the one thing that the President would not want revealed". This information did indeed interest Archibald Cox and he demanded that Richard Nixon hand over the White House tapes. Nixon refused and so Cox appealed to the Supreme Court.

On 20th October, 1973, Nixon ordered his Attorney-General, Elliot Richardson, to fire Archibald Cox. Richardson refused and resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered the deputy Attorney-General, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refused and he was sacked. Eventually, Robert Bork, the Solicitor-General, fired Cox.

An estimated 450,000 telegrams went sent to Richard Nixon protesting against his decision to remove Cox. The heads of 17 law colleges now called for Nixon's impeachment. Nixon was unable to resist the pressure and on 23rd October he agreed to comply with the subpoena and began releasing some of the tapes. The following month a gap of over 18 minutes was discovered on the tape of the conversation between Nixon and H. R. Haldemanon June 20, 1972. Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, denied deliberately erasing the tape. It was now clear that Nixon had been involved in the cover-up and members of the Senate began to call for his impeachment.

Peter Rodino, who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, presided over the impeachment proceedings against Nixon. The hearings opened in May 1974. The committee had to vote on five articles of impeachment and it was thought that members would split on party lines. However, on the three main charges - obstructing justice, abuse of power and withholding evidence, the majority of Republicans voted with the Democrats.

Two weeks later three senior Republican congressmen, Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, John Rhodes visited Richard Nixon to tell him that they were going to vote for his impeachment. Nixon, convinced that he will lose the vote, decided to resign as president of the United States.

After leaving the Justice Department, Ruckelshaus returned to the private sector and eventually became Senior Vice-President of Legal Affairs of Weyerhaeuser.

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan appointed Ruckelshaus to serve as interim director of the EPM, a position he held through most of the following year. He joined Perkins Coie in 1985, a Seattle based law firm.

Tag: William Ruckleshaus

Late in the evening on June 17, 1972, five men were arrested at the National Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC in what appeared to be a routine burglary at first glance. Follow on investigations revealed that these men—identified as Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, James McCord, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis— were not your ordinary run of the mill petty criminals but operatives working for the Committee for the Re-election of President Richard Nixon. They had been caught wiretapping phones and stealing documents as part of a larger campaign of illegal activities developed by Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy to ensure Nixon’s re-election. On September 15, 1972, a grand jury indicted the five office burglars, as well as Liddy and another Nixon aide E. Howard Hunt for conspiracy, burglary, and violation of federal wiretapping laws. President Nixon denied any association with the break-in and most voters believed him, winning re-election in a landslide. At the urging of Nixon’s aides, five pleaded guilty to avoid trial the other two were convicted in January 1973.

Left: Virgilio Gonzalez, James McCord, Eugenio Martinez, Bernard Barker, and Frank Sturgis

The Wartergate Hotel

Nixon’s passionate denials aside, there was a pervasive sense, as well as evidence, that there was more to this story than simply five low level campaign workers acting independently in criminal activities against their political rivals. There were unanswered questions and numerous threats that all pointed to a darker conspiracy and greater White House involvement. On February 7, 1973, the United States Senate voted unanimously to create a Senate select committee to investigate the 1972 Presidential Election and potential wrongdoings. The committee which consisted of four Democratic and three Republican Senators, was empowered to investigate the break-in and any subsequent cover-up of criminal activity, as well as “all other illegal, improper, or unethical conduct occurring during the Presidential campaign of 1972, including political espionage and campaign finance practices.” Committee hearings were broadcast live on television in May 1973 and quickly became “must see TV” for an inquiring and curious nation. Although Nixon repeatedly declared that he knew nothing about the Watergate burglary, former White House counsel John Dean III testified that the president had approved plans to cover up White House connections to the break-in. Another former aide, Alexander Butterfield, revealed that the president maintained a voice-activated tape recorder system in various rooms in the White House which potentially contained information implicating the President in a criminal conspiracy. Only one month after the hearings began, 67 percent believed that President Nixon had participated in the Watergate cover-up.

Washington Post Reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward who played a pivotal role in breaking the Watergate story.

The revelation that there were recordings of potentially damaging information implicating Nixon and his efforts to prevent their disclosure soon became the central drama of the story. Nixon struggled to protect the tapes during the summer and fall of 1973. His lawyers argued that the president’s executive privilege allowed him to keep the tapes to himself, but the Senate committee and an independent special prosecutor named Archibald Cox were all determined to obtain them. On October 20, 1973, after Cox refused to drop the subpoena, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire the special prosecutor. Richardson resigned in protest rather than carry out what he judged to be an unethical and unlawful order. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckleshaus to fire Cox, but Ruckelshaus also resigned rather than fire him. Nixon’s search for someone in the Justice Department willing to fire Cox ended with the Solicitor General, Robert Bork. Though Bork said he believed Nixon’s order was valid and appropriate, he considered resigning to avoid being “perceived as a man who did the President’s bidding to save my job”. This chain of events would go down in history as the “Saturday Night Massacre” and further turn the American public against Nixon. Responding to the allegations that he was obstructing justice, Nixon famously replied, “I am not a crook.”

Things went from bad to worse for the White House in the new year. On February 6, 1974, the House of Representatives began to investigate the possible impeachment of the President. Less than a month later, on March 1, 1974, a grand jury indicted several former aides of Nixon, who became known as the “Watergate Seven”—H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John N. Mitchell, Charles Colson, Gordan C. Strachan, Robert Maridan and Kenneth Parkinson for conspiring to hinder the Watergate investigation. The grand jury secretly named Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator. However the special prosecutor dissuaded them from an indictment of Nixon, arguing that a president can be indicted only after he leaves office, creating a precedent that lasts even today.

Nixon eventually released select tapes in an effort to tamp down growing public criticisms and perceptions that he was hiding something. The President announced the release of the transcripts in a speech to the nation on April 29, 1974 but noted that any audio pertinent to national security information could be redacted from the released tapes. This caveat almost immediately fueled suspicions that the White House was indeed hiding something more damning. The issue of the recordings and whether the White House was obligated to comply with the Congressional subpoena tapes went to the United States Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974, in United States v. Nixon, the Court ruled unanimously that claims of executive privilege over the tapes were void. The Court ordered the President to release the tapes to the special prosecutor. On July 30, 1974, Nixon complied with the order and released the subpoenaed tapes to the public.

Nixon: “I am not a crook!”

Nixon’s fate was largely sealed on August 5, 1974 when the White House released a previously unknown audio tape that would prove to be a “smoking gun” providing undeniable evidence of his complicity in the Watergate crimes. The recording from June 23, 1972, less than a week after the break-in, revealed a President engaged in in-depth conversations with his aides during which they discussed how to stop the FBI from continuing its investigation of the break-in. Two days later, a group of senior Republican leaders from the Senate and the House of Representatives met with Nixon and presented him with an ultimatum, resign or be impeached.

On August 8, in a nationally televised address, Nixon officially resigned from the Presidency in shame. The following day he and his family departed the White House one last time, boarded Marine One and flew to Andrews Air Force base where they were shuttled back to their home in California. Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as President shortly thereafter. He would issue a full and unconditional pardon of Nixon on September 8 immunizing him from prosecution for any crimes he had “committed or may have committed or taken part in” as president.

William Ruckelshaus, a US EPA Chief to Remember

“I think 80 percent of the American people are advocates for the environment. At EPA, you work for a cause that is beyond self-interest and larger than the goals people normally pursue. You’re not there for the money, you’re there for something beyond yourself.” William ‘Bill’ Ruckelshaus

By David H. Martin

As this is written, America has learned that the dreaded coronavirus knows no borders. In the 1950s, America learned that the scourge of air and water pollution knows no borders. The acid rain devastation of Northeastern forests from airborne contaminants, blown in from the Midwest, alarmed Americans, along with the sight of Ohio’s Cuyohoga River in flames.

On October 20, 1997, I covered the Water Environment Federation (WEFTEC) convention, paying tribute to the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act of 1972, an ambitious program to protect and improve the quality of water in rivers, lakes, wetlands, estuaries and coastal regions of the United States. On the stage that day was William ‘Bill’ Ruckelshaus who, in 1970, became the very first US EPA Administrator, appointed by President Richard M. Nixon ( the same year as the first Earth Day on April 22). At WEFTEC 97, Ruckelshaus called the Clean Water Act “the single most effective federal environmental law ever.” The thrust of his message to the WEF members was that much still must be accomplished, especially in the area of non-point pollution. Looking back, he was arguably the greatest US EPA chief in history.

Here’s how Scott Simon of CBS remembered Ruckelshaus in his Weekend Edition broadcast on November 30, 2019: “William Ruckelshaus was a conservationist, an Indiana Republican conservative who believed in conserving balanced budgets, limited government powers, constitutional checks and balances and clean air and water. ‘Nature provides a free lunch,’ he said, ‘but only if we control our appetites.’ He helped write Indiana’s first air pollution laws as a state Deputy Attorney General in the 1960s and was appointed the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency by President Nixon in 1970. As the first Director of the EPA, Bill Ruckelshaus banned DDT from US agriculture, went after steel and paper companies for water pollution, and told major cities to reduce the sewage they sent into water systems.”

“He reminds us how noble public service can be,” President Obama said, when he awarded Ruckelshaus the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, then added: “And our air and water is cleaner and our lives are brighter because of him.”

A second term, under President Reagan
During President Ronald Reagan’s first term, Ruckelshaus observed increasing turmoil at US EPA. When the deterioration became clear to the public, the same qualities of forthrightness that led him away from the agency during the Watergate scandal, drew him back 10 years later. In spring 1983, White House Chief of Staff James Baker asked him to return to the agency. Intent on restoring the institution he had founded 13 years before, Ruckelshaus overcame his own (and his family’s) resistance, on the condition the White House allow him maximum autonomy in the choice of new appointees.

Between May 15, 1983 and February 7, 1985, Administrator Ruckelshaus attempted to win back public confidence in the agency. It proved to be a difficult period, in which a skeptical press and a wary Congress scrutinized all aspects of the agency’s activities and interpreted many of its actions in the worst possible light. Yet when Ruckelshaus left US EPA, he did so with a sense of satisfaction. He had filled the top-level positions with persons of competence, turned the attention of the staff back to the mission and raised the esteem of the agency in the public mind.

Ruckelshaus biography in brief:

  • Born July 24, 1932 in Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Grew up in a distinguished Indiana family
  • Served two years (1953-55) in the US Army as a drill sergeant
  • Graduated in 1958 from Princeton
  • Earned a law degree in 1960 from Harvard
  • Joined the family law firm in 1960
  • In 1965, won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives
  • In 1970, appointed Assistant Attorney General under President Nixon
  • Also in 1970, appointed the first EPA Administrator by Nixon
  • In 1973, appointed acting FBI Director under Nixon
  • Also in 1973, became Senior Vice President of the Weyerhaeuser Company
  • In 1988, became Chairman, CEO of Browning Ferris Industries
  • In 2004, appointed by President G.W. Bush to serve on US Commission on Ocean Policy
  • In 2008, appointed to Washington’s Puget Sound Partnership
  • In 2010, named co-Chair of Joint Ocean Commission Initiative
  • Also in 2010, named to the Advisory Board of the W.D. Ruckelshaus Center at the University of Washington
  • Also in 2010, named Director of the Initiative for Global Development
  • In November 2015, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama
  • Died November 27, 2019 at 87 at home in Medina, WA

Ruckelshaus died last November at the age of 87, a conservative and a conservationist who conserved and protected the rule of law. A celebration of his life, his leadership and his accomplishments while US EPA Administrator should be heralded this December, when the agency marks its 50th anniversary. Current US EPA Director, Andrew Wheeler was scheduled to address WQA members at their annual convention in April, when the Coronavirus crisis forced cancellation of the event.

About the author
David Martin, President of Lenzi Martin Marketing, has more than 30 years experience in the water quality industry working with dealers, distributors and manufacturers. He can be reached at (708) 848-8404 or [email protected]

William D. Ruckelshaus

William “Bill” Doyle Ruckelshaus was born on July 24, 1932 in Indianapolis, Indiana to Marion Doyle Covington and John K. Ruckelshaus. After graduating from high school, Bill served two years in the United States Army, eventually becoming a drill sergeant before he left the service in 1955. In 1957, Bill graduated cum laude from Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree in history before obtaining his law degree from Harvard University in 1960.

After passing the Indiana bar exam in 1960, Bill began his career in law at his family’s firm of Ruckelshaus, Bobbitt, and O’Conner where he worked for eight years. In 1960, at age 28, he was appointed Deputy Attorney General of Indiana, and served through 1965. As Deputy Attorney General, Bill served as counsel to the Indiana Stream Pollution Control Board where he obtained court orders prohibiting industries and municipalities from heavy pollution of the state’s water supply. In 1961, he helped draft the 1961 Indiana Air Pollution Control Act, Indiana’s first attempt to reduce pollution. By 1967, Bill had won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. During his term in office, until 1969, he served as Majority Leader of the House.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed Bill as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Division for the United States Department of Justice, a post he held until his appointment as first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on December 2, 1970. One of Bill’s first tasks as EPA Administrator was to address the Cuyahoga River burning, where he worked with the Attorney General of the United States to file suit against the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation for discharging substantial amounts of cyanide into the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland. Later, he would oversee the implementation of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and ban the use of DDT, claiming that DDT is a “potential human carcinogen”.

Because of the Watergate scandal, there was a reshuffling of Nixon administration posts in April 1973, and Bill was appointed as Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Later that same year, Bill was appointed Deputy Attorney General of the United States Department of Justice. In an event known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”, Bill and his supervisor, Elliot Richardson, resigned their positions within the Justice Department rather than obey an order from President Nixon to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was investigating official misconduct on the part of the President and his aides.

After leaving the Department of Justice, Bill returned to the private sector to practice law, joining the Washington law firm of Ruckelshaus, Beveridge, Fairbanks, and Diamond in 1973. Two years later, he accepted a position as Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs of the Weyerhaeuser Company.

In 1983, with the EPA in crisis due to mass resignations over the mishandling of the Superfund program, President Ronald Regan appointed Bill to serve as EPA Administrator again. Bill served until 1985 before joining Perkins Coie, a Seattle-based law firm.

Bill has served on the boards of Isilon Systems, Weyerhaeuser Company, Nordstrom, Inc., Cummins Engine Company, Monsanto Company, Solutia, Inc., Pfizer, Inc., Coinstar, Inc., Pharmacia Corporation, and the Energy Foundation. He is the founding director and a board member of the Initiative for Global Development, Chair Emeritus of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, and Board Emeritus member of the World Resources Institute and the University of Wyoming, Ruckelshaus Center. From July 1997 to July 1998, President Clinton appointed him as the United States envoy in the implementing of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. In 1999, he was appointed by Governor Gary Locke as the Chairman of the Salmon Recovery Funding Board for the State of Washington. In May 2007, Governor Christine Gregoire appointed Bill as Chairman of the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership. In June 2001, he was appointed by President Bush as a member of the Commission on Ocean Policy which was created by Congress in 2000. In 2015, Bill was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama.

Bill lived with his wife, Jill, in their Seattle, Washington home. They have five children and 12 grandchildren.

Bill passed away in his Seattle home on November 27, 2019.

For more information on Bill, read a letter from our Center Director and Advisory Board Chair here, or watch Advisory Board member and Bill’s close friend and confidant, Jerry Grinstein, highlight Bill’s career

William D. Ruckelshaus


Member, Indiana House of Representatives
Assistant U.S. Attorney General, Civil Division
4/3/1973- 7/9/1973:
Acting Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation
U.S. Deputy Attorney General
Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency
Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency


On December 4, 1970, William ("Bill") Ruckelshaus (1932-2019) is sworn in as the first administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The newly formed agency is a conglomeration of 15 previously existing units from four federal agencies. Ruckelshaus ably brings them together during his two-and-a-half years as administrator to form an effective EPA that will accomplish a great deal during the early 1970s. In 1976 Ruckelshaus and his family will move to the Seattle area, and both he and his wife will become well-known for their work throughout Western Washington, which will remain their home except for a brief period in the 1980s when Ruckelshaus again heads the EPA.

Before the 1960s, there was relatively little concern over the impact human beings were having on the environment. Growth and development were considered progress and their side effects were only rarely considered, even with pollution fouling some of America's waterways and some of its major cities by the middle of the twentieth century. Though many states had limited antipollution laws on the books (and there was some weak federal legislation as well) these unsophisticated laws were seldom vigorously enforced. Growth was good and big business even better, and many state leaders didn't want to alienate big and successful businesses by enforcing their antipollution laws and watching those businesses move to another state.

This sentiment changed during the 1960s. In 1962 Rachel Carson (1907-1964) published her seminal book, Silent Spring, which warned of the dangers caused by then-rampant pesticide use and questioned science's belief that human control of nature was the answer. Many consider the book to have launched the environmental movement of the 1960s, which dramatically gained steam during the decade's final years.

President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was not a particular fan of the environment, but he was enough of a politician to appreciate that the public was. Shortly after his 1969 inauguration he asked Roy Ash (1918-2011), president and co-founder of Litton Industries, to head a commission (aptly known as the Ash Commission) to make suggestions on how to improve the executive branch and consolidate functions that were spread throughout the federal government. Later that year, Nixon asked Ash to consider whether there should be a separate environmental protection agency to replace the multiple organizations that then handled the nation's environmental issues. After House and Senate hearings in 1970, Ash recommended such an agency be created.

Ruckelshaus was not the first choice to lead the new agency. In the early 1990s, he explained "two [other] guys turned it down! I never knew who they were" (" . Oral History Interview"). But Ruckelshaus, then working for the Justice Department, was interested. He easily handled a Senate subcommittee hearing to determine his qualifications, and on December 4, 1970, with his wife Jill (b. 1937) and President Nixon looking on, he was sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger (1907-1995) as the nation's first EPA administrator.

Fifteen in One

The EPA itself had officially opened for business two days earlier at 20th and L streets in Washington, D.C. It had been cobbled together in less than a year by transferring 15 units of previously existing organizations from four separate agencies into a single agency totaling 5,650 employees. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare contributed air, solid waste, water hygiene, radiological health, and pesticide tolerance functions (and personnel) the Interior Department contributed water quality and pesticide label review the Department of Agriculture provided pesticide registration functions, while the Atomic Energy Commission and the Federal Radiation Council provided radiation protection standards and criteria.

Ruckelshaus moved quickly and decisively during his tenure at the EPA. A week after being sworn in, he publicly gave three major cities -- Cleveland, Detroit, and Atlanta -- six months to come into compliance with water-quality standards or face Justice Department action. At the end of the month, on December 31, 1970, President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, which (among other things) required the EPA to establish national air-quality standards and standards for significant pollution sources, including the automobile. The act set emissions standards requiring a 90 percent reduction of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide by 1975 and a 90 percent reduction of nitrogen oxides by 1976. America's carmakers protested and asked for an extension of time to implement the needed changes. Ruckelshaus refused, and in 1975 catalytic converters (which converted noxious emissions into water vapor and carbon dioxide) began appearing in American cars.

Another significant EPA achievement under Ruckelshaus came in June 1972, when the agency banned the use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, more commonly known as DDT. DDT was a controversial pesticide that had proven highly effective in killing disease-carrying insects, particularly the malaria-carrying mosquito. The pesticide was so effective that it killed most other insects too, boosting farm productivity in what some enthusiastically called a "green revolution," the term in the 1950s and 1960s meaning increased crop production. Others were more cautious, pointing out that many of these insects were beneficial to humans. Then it became known that DDT was getting into the systems of birds such as the bald eagle, causing them to lay eggs with shells so thin that many eggs cracked before the baby hatched. Another problem was that once DDT was used it had to be used in increasing quantities to maintain its efficacy. Though DDT wasn't known to represent a threat to humans, Ruckelshaus was concerned that its increasing use could tip the equation. "If we guessed wrong -- and it was in the fatty tissue of man in substantial amounts -- we could really have a problem on our hands" he later explained ("Bill Ruckelshaus," 27).

On to Seattle

Ruckelshaus served as the EPA's first administrator until April 1973. After serving briefly under Nixon in two other positions (and famously resigning in the "Saturday Night Massacre" during the Watergate scandal), and then spending several years in private law practice, in 1976 Ruckelshaus moved with his family to the Seattle area. He served as a senior vice president at Weyerhaeuser Company for the next seven years, and later served on its board of directors. He went back to Washington, D.C. in 1983 to head the EPA once again, and was there for nearly two years before returning to Seattle.

Back in Seattle, he worked with the Madrona Venture Group, a venture-capital firm focusing on technology. He also worked on nonprofit boards in the Seattle area, including the Seattle Aquarium and the Washington News Council, and between 2007 and 2010 he chaired the Puget Sound Partnership, a new state agency created to preserve and protect Puget Sound. Jill Ruckelshaus was similarly active in the Seattle area on both for-profit and non-profit boards, and became known for her work on women's rights.

In 2017 Bill and Jill Ruckelshaus received a Seattle-King County First Citizen Award from Seattle King County Realtors, honoring their contributions to the community over the preceding 40 years.

Seattle Office of Arts & Culture
King County

William Ruckelshaus being sworn in as first EPA administrator, with President Richard Nixon, Jill Ruckelshaus, and Chief Justice Warren Burger, December 4, 1970

William Ruckelshaus, Madrona director, former EPA leader and key Watergate figure, dies at 87

William Ruckelshaus. (Madrona Venture Group Photo)

William Ruckelshaus, a fixture in the Seattle business community with a storied history of civil service, died Wednesday at his home in Seattle. He was 87.

Long before his most recent role advising startups, Ruckelshaus famously defied President Richard Nixon as deputy attorney general during the “Saturday Night Massacre” and the Watergate scandal in 1973.

Ruckelshaus also served as the first leader of the Environmental Protection Agency and was a longtime conservationist.

“Bill Ruckelshaus devoted his life to public service,” said Tom Alberg, Madrona managing director, in a statement. “With his death, our country lost a hero and protector of American democracy.”

Ruckelshaus became the EPA’s first administrator when the agency was founded in 1970. He went on to serve as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and then Deputy Attorney General of the U.S., where he landed in Nixon’s crosshairs.

Mired in the Watergate scandal, Nixon ordered his top Justice Department officials to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor appointed to the case. Nixon wanted Cox removed to avoid complying with a subpoena for incriminating tape recordings. Ruckelshaus refused the order and resigned from his post, along with a colleague. The firings and resignations were dubbed by the media “The Saturday Night Massacre.” They set off a barrage of calls for Nixon’s resignation, which he ultimately complied with in 1974.

“When the Presidency was in crisis 47 years ago, Ruckelshaus resigned as Deputy Attorney General rather than carry out the order of the President of the United States to fire the Special Prosecutor,” Alberg said. “It is through the character and courage of people like Ruckelshaus that our county will survive.”

Ruckelshaus moved to Seattle in 1976 to become the vice president of the lumber giant Weyerhaeuser. In 1983 President Ronald Reagan asked Ruckelshaus to return to the helm of the beleaguered EPA. He is credited with restoring confidence in the agency and returning it to its mission, according to The New York Times.

In 2015, Ruckelshaus was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his service to the country.

Following his second tenure at the EPA, Ruckelshaus joined the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie. He went on to co-found Madrona, a major venture capital firm in the Seattle region, where he continued to work for 25 years. In 2004, he became chair of the University of Washington and Washington State University’s The William D. Ruckelshaus Center.

“It is appropriate that Bill would leave us at Thanksgiving, because few people have ever lived a life that provided us with more for which to be thankful,” the center director and chair of board wrote in a letter. “For the nation and the world, there was Bill’s character and moral example, taking a stand for the rule of law in the brightest of spotlights and highest of stakes, even when it required him to say ‘no’ to powerful people, and cost him his job.

“There was also his leadership and resourcefulness in establishing a new federal agency charged with protecting the nation’s health and natural environment,” they wrote. “His performance in that role is still studied as a textbook case for how to establish an effective organization (and later, for how to return to a struggling organization and ‘right the ship’).”

Ruckelshaus served on the boards of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, Weyerhaeuser Company, Nordstrom, Isilon, Cummins Engine Company, Solutia, Pharmacia Corporation, and Monsanto. His varied positions reflect a career that sought to balance business interests and environmentalism.

“I am so saddened by Bill’s loss, but so thankful to have known him and for all he has done for our country and region,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement. “My thoughts and prayers are with his remarkable family in this difficult time. Throughout Bill’s entire career, he has conducted himself with integrity and intelligence, and he always sought to do what was right, even when it required immense sacrifice.”


Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962.

Dunlap, Thomas R. DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy. Princeton University Press, 1981.

EPA Historical Collection.

Hamby, Alonzo. Liberalism and Its Challengers: FDR to Reagan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Hays, Samuel P. Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Lacey, Michael J., ed. Government and Environmental Politics: Essays on Historical Developments Since World War Two. Washington D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1991.

Landy, Marc K., et. al. The Environmental Protection Agency: Asking the Wrong Questions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Lovins, Amory. Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace. San Francisco: Friends of the Earth, International, 1977.

Melosi, Martin. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment, 1880-1980. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1981.

Nash, Roderick Frazier. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Quarles, John. Cleaning Up America: An Insider's View of the Environmental Protection Agency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.

Shabekoff, Philip. A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

intermedium: EPA defines media as air, water, and land collectively. "Media" is the plural form of medium--a substance regarded as the means of transmission of a force or effect.

many committees: By 1993, EPA answered to 13 major Congressional committees and 26 major subcommittees.

1. Administrator to EPA Staff, 4 Dec 1970, Memorandum, Administration and Management files, EPA Historical Collection.

2. EPA History Program, "William D. Ruckelshaus," EPA Oral History Series (United States Environmental Protection Agency, November 1992), p. 9.

3. William D. Ruckelshaus, Address to the Indiana State Legislature, 8 February 1971, Ruckelshaus' speeches file, EPA Historical Collection.

4. William D. Ruckelshaus, "The City must be the Teacher' of Man Address to the Annual Congress of Cities, Atlanta, Georgia, 10 Dec 1970.

5. William Verity to Richard Nixon, 28 Sept 1971, in John Quarles' Cleaning Up America: An Insiders' View of the Environmental Protection Agency (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), pp. 63-4.

6. EPA Oral Interview-1: William D. Ruckelshaus, Interview conducted by Michael Gorn (Washington, D.C.: GPO), pp. 10ff.

8. Thomas DunIap, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy (Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 208.

Special thanks go to Dr. Richard Baker, Dr. William Cronon, Dr. Dan Flores, Dr. Michael Gorn, Dr. George Watson, and Don Bronkema for their helpful comments on drafts of this document.

April 27-30, 1973: FBI Director Gray Destroyed Incriminating White House Evidence Resigns

The New York Daily News reports that acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray destroyed potentially incriminating evidence taken from the safe of Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt (see Late December 1972). Gray, who testified to this days before to the Watergate grand jury, said that he received the material from White House counsel John Dean. “I said early in the game,” Gray testifies, “that Watergate would be a spreading stain that would tarnish everyone with whom it came in contact—and I’m no exception.” Shortly afterwards, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward learns from his “Deep Throat” source, FBI deputy director W. Mark Felt (see May 31, 2005), that the story is true. Felt informs Woodward that Gray was told by Nixon aides Dean and John Ehrlichman that the files were “political dynamite” that could do more damage to the Nixon administration than Watergate (see June 28, 1972). Woodward realizes that the story means Gray’s career at the FBI is finished. Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein write their own report for April 30 the same day, Gray resigns from the FBI (see April 5, 1973). Instead of Felt being named FBI director, as he had hoped, Nixon appoints the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, William Ruckelshaus, to head the bureau. Felt is keenly disappointed. [Time, 8/20/1973 O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 Woodward, 2005, pp. 96-98] When he learns of Gray’s actions, Post editor Howard Simons muses: “A director of the FBI destroying evidence? I never thought it could happen.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 306-307] The FBI’s 1974 report on its Watergate investigation dates Gray’s resignation as April 27, not April 29 [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 ] , a date supported by reports from Time. [Time, 8/20/1973]


FBI director William Ruckelshaus pauses during a May 1973 news conference in Washington. | AP

Eric Holder served as the 82nd attorney general of the United States.

During my tenure as attorney general, I had the portraits of four predecessors, including Elliot Richardson, hanging in my large conference room. But in my smaller personal office, I kept a picture in my desk of Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus and his wife walking out of the Justice Department on the evening of the “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973. Like so many of the women and men I had the pleasure of working with at the department, I revered Ruckelshaus for the courage he showed by resigning in principle, rather than buckling to political pressure.

The Department of Justice, at its best, holds a unique position in the federal government. Senior officials are appointed by the president, but they serve, first and foremost, the interests of the American people. They take these offices not to enjoy their trappings, nor to wield power, nor to put personal beliefs above the interests of the nation. Their service is to a mission to ensure that every American is treated equally under the law.

While they were serving together at the Justice Department, Ruckelshaus, who passed away in November, and Richardson were forced to make one of the most consequential decisions ever faced by any public servants in the history of our nation. In October 1973, President Richard Nixon ordered each of them to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor who had made a legitimate request for evidence from the White House. Nixon, of course, knew that the evidence Cox sought would unravel his claims of innocence in the Watergate scandal and likely lead to the end of his presidency. Rather than taint their offices and the institution they led by following a politically motivated and potentially unlawful order to obstruct justice, Ruckelshaus and Richardson held fast to their oath of office. By resigning, they demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the rule of law and the values that underlie our democracy. They showed the American people and demonstrated to history that, through their action, no one in America—not even the president who appointed them—was above the law.

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History has treated Ruckelshaus—appropriately—very kindly. His example is a guide for all of the selfless, dedicated women and men who have served, and do serve, the American people at the Justice Department. Of the many lessons we should take from his career, I hope one in particular resonates with those serving at this moment in Washington. A decade after the Saturday Night Massacre, Ruckelshaus’ reputation was not diminished, nor was he ostracized by his own political party. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan asked him to return to lead the Environmental Protection Agency—an agency that Ruckelshaus had helped to get off the ground in 1970—to restore trust in a place that was in crisis because of mismanagement. At the EPA, like at Justice, Ruckelshaus was driven by facts and the public good, which led to emissions standards for cars, banning DDT and dealing with the smog that was choking American cities. There can be a reward for those who put principle and patriotism above partisanship and ideology. There is—I still believe—a second act in America for those who do the right thing.

Our national conception of who constitutes an American patriot is often too narrowly focused. There is no doubt in my mind that Ruckelshaus deserves that title. He was driven by patriotism. He understood that our founding documents only have meaning when those who have sworn to protect and defend them, through their actions, give life to those words. That’s why he remains a legendary figure at the Justice Department—and will be for as long as the institution exists. Today, more than ever, we need the patriotism and mettle that William Ruckelshaus personified to guide those who have the responsibility and honor of working at the highest levels of our government.

Watch the video: Oral Histories: William Ruckelshaus