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Remembering Bill

November 27, 2019 –

On behalf of the Ruckelshaus Center Advisory Board, faculty and staff, and everyone else at Washington State University and the University of Washington affiliated with the Center, we would like to express our deep sadness at the passing of Bill Ruckelshaus—our founder, our visionary, our leader, our muse, and our treasured friend.

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. 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. 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”).

Fifty years ago, bald eagles were on the road to extinction, and leaded gasoline was endangering our air, water, and children. How many of us can point to so profound an impact as being the leader who made the decisions that led to demonstrably cleaner air and water, and healthier children? When we see hundreds of bald eagles on the Skagit River each winter (or the one that is seemingly always sitting on a lamppost on the 520 Bridge, in the midst of the state’s largest urban area), do we think of Bill’s role in making those wonders possible? We should.

It is fitting that Bill helped save our national symbol, because he loved this country, its history, and its ideals deeply. Who else would give out pocket copies of the US Constitution at his 80th birthday party?

For our state and region, there was Bill’s tireless work on behalf of salmon, Puget Sound, the ocean, or anything else that numerous presidents, governors, legislatures, and other leaders from both sides of the aisle asked him to tackle over his 50-plus years in the Northwest. They knew that Bill was the secret ingredient to a successful policy process. He changed the conversation from self-interest to common good, focused like a laser on what mattered, and by example, inspired everyone to bring their best and most creative selves.

In the private sector, he not only helped turn our area into a world leader of innovation and creativity, he worked tirelessly to create an ethic of corporate environmental, social, and economic responsibility. Because of his wit and obvious affection, he could deliver tough messages, and tell powerful people that they needed to do more, needed to reach beyond their own bottom lines, and take a long-term view of success.

What is common to all of these examples is Bill’s vision, effectiveness, perceptiveness, humor, and deep affection for our society and democracy, but even more for people as individuals. He not only remembered everyone he met and worked with — from world leaders to graduate interns — his keen observational skills led him quickly to deep insight into how each person “ticked”, and how to bring out the best in them, to focus on, and build their areas of strength.

All these ideals and values came together in Bill’s vision for the Ruckelshaus Center (which, in typically humble fashion, he allowed the universities to name after him only after much cajoling). Bill knew from both experience and instinct that our best chance for effectively addressing the complex public policy challenges faced by modern societies is not through old school, top-down, command-and-control, win/lose politics, but through collaborative governance and principled negotiation. He knew that by providing forums and expertise where the full range of affected parties could bring their knowledge and experience to the table, learn from one another, and move toward solutions that addressed all interests, we could overcome gridlock, stalemate, and discord. He knew that collaboration is not idealistic, but practical. If you want to solve a challenge, what is more practical than creating allies out of people and interests who would otherwise oppose you at every turn?

Bill understood this in his bones, and believed that universities were in a unique position to foster this type of policy discourse. For that belief, we will be forever thankful. And we will continue the work Bill started.

With both deep sadness, and a profound sense of thankfulness,

Bob Drewel                               Michael Kern
Advisory Board Chair              Director