Daughter Remains Committed to Legacy of Earth Day Founder, Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson

Apr 20, 2015

Forty-five years after Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day, Tia Nelson is caught between carrying on her father's legacy and hewing to the guidelines of her state government job.

For over a decade, Tia Nelson has served as executive secretary to Wisconsin’s Board of Commissioners of Public Land. The agency has recently been shrouded in controversy as its workers were publicly prohibited from talking about or working on climate change issues.

Tia Nelson says that as a private citizen, she aims to carry on her dad’s legacy.

Gaylord Nelson served as Wisconsin’s Governor, and later U.S. Senator. Nelson hoped Earth Day would spark an annual “teach-in” about environmental issues at schools around the country. That simple idea has taken on international proportions.

Tia will spend this Earth Day at her dad’s alma mater, San Jose State in California. She says students there are organizing a day that will overflow with events – something her dad would love.

Gaylord Nelson died in 2005, but his presence runs deep in his daughter.

Inspiring awareness of the importance of clean water and air was central to Gaylord Nelson's vision of Earth Day.
Credit S Bence

“My father was a remarkable man and well respected as a public official, but he was a great father as well and had a wonderful sense of humor,” Nelson says.

She considers her father’s greatest gift to his children the sense that everyone makes a difference.

“How one conducted themselves and dedicated themselves in life had important and the potential for impact and certainly my father’s life is a testament to that principal,” Nelson says.

Nelson recalls that as a kid, she simply wanted to hang out with her politician dad; that was easier said than done.

“He was a state senator when I was born, he was elected governor when I was two and he was elected United States senator when I was six; so the only way I was able to spend more time with him was to take an interest in what he was doing. So I would just beg him to let me go with him to events and then I would just do whatever he did. So if he walked around the room shaking hands and introducing himself, asking how the family was, I just followed right behind him and stuck out my hand and did what he did,” Nelson says.

Nelson says her father championed environmental issues while governor, then wanted to continue the cause as a U.S. Senator.

But he arrived in Washington in the 1960s, when civil rights issues and foreign policy were front and center.

Nelson managed to convince then President Kennedy to travel the country on a conservation tour, but it fell flat.

“Even with a popular president at the helm of this tour, it failed to attract the attention my father had hoped for. Apparently the president’s heart wasn’t particularly invested in it; press coverage was lackluster at best and the tour was cut short,” she says.

Nelson says the spark that finally ignited Earth Day came out of the blue in 1969.

Her father had traveled to California after the largest oil spill of the time took place in Santa Barbara. As he flew home, Nelson pulled a magazine out of the pocket in front of his seat.

“He read an article describing the impact of campus teach-ins on public opinion about the Vietnam War and he thought to himself – that’s it, I’m going to call for a national teach-in on the environment in schools across the country,” she says.

Tia Nelson vividly recalls April 22, 45 years ago, an estimated 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day.

She was in junior high as the time. “We did trash pickup around the school grounds,” Nelson says.

Every year as Earth Day approached, Nelson remembers people asking her dad what he considered the most important environmental challenge the world faced.

In later years, he always said climate change. Today, it’s her unequivocal response.

“Whether you’re a forester or a farmer or an insurance executive or a local official planning an infrastructure project in your community, climate change impacts your bottom line. There have been interesting developments just quite recently – the G7 just issued a national security risk assessment, they concluded that climate change is a substantial risk to national security, displacement from sea level rise, violent conflict over food and water,” she says.

As a private citizen, Nelson adds, “ I think it’s a waste of time to debate the science. The real debate is what we do about climate change.”

NOTE: Tia Nelson spoke with WUWM on her private time about her father Gaylord Nelson’s legacy on the eve of Earth Day.