Ruckelshaus, William Doyle (1932-2019)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 6/08/2018
  • Essay 20579
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Bill Ruckelshaus played a wide and varied role in American political and agency history during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1970 he was nominated by President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) to become the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and he is remembered for getting the agency off to a fast and effective start. He is equally remembered for his actions as deputy attorney general in 1973, when he refused to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox (1912-2004) in the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre" during the Watergate scandal. Between 1983 and 1985 he returned to the EPA as its fifth administrator and helped restore the agency to a more even keel after the stormy tenure of its prior administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford (1942-2004). Ruckelshaus, his wife Jill (b. 1937), and their family moved to the Seattle area in 1976 and, except for a few years, lived there permanently, with both Bill and Jill Ruckelshaus contributing considerably to the King County community. 


William Doyle Ruckelshaus was born on July 24, 1932, to John K. (1900-1962) and Marion Doyle Covington Ruckelshaus. He followed an older brother, John (1930-2015), and preceded a younger sister, Bonney (b. 1940). Born and raised in Indianapolis, young Ruckelshaus was especially influenced by his father, a successful attorney. In high school he transferred to Portsmouth Abbey, a Catholic Benedictine boarding school in Rhode Island, and then began college at Princeton. His studies were interrupted in 1953 when he was drafted into the army, where he rose to the rank of sergeant in less than two years. After completing his army service in 1955, Ruckelshaus returned to Princeton and graduated two years later. From there he went to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1960.

Ruckelshaus went back to Indianapolis and joined his brother and his father at the family law firm, established in 1895 by his grandfather, John. Not long after he returned to Indiana he was appointed a deputy attorney general. Soon after that he had his first taste of environmental issues when the state attorney general appointed him counsel to the State Board of Health. In the early 1960s the environment was not the hot-button issue it would become later in the decade, and there was little public interest in enforcing what few antipollution laws the state had on the books. Instead, the dominant interest was keeping industry in Indiana. Ruckelshaus found himself having to balance between the need for enforcement against the more egregious polluters of the state's air and water and the ever-present threat that they would leave the state if enforcement was too aggressive. It proved to be a good training ground for his later days as head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

It was also a period of considerable personal upheaval in Ruckelshaus's life. In 1961, his first wife, Ellen, died unexpectedly shortly after delivering twin daughters, Cathy and Mary. The following year, Ruckelshaus was on a fishing trip on Lake Michigan with his father when they were caught in a squall. His father's boat capsized and his father drowned. As if that wasn't enough in a year, it was also in 1962 that Ruckelshaus married Jill Strickland. They had three children over the rest of the decade: Jennifer, William, and Robin.

Bill Ruckelshaus's first foray into politics came in the 1964 Indiana Republican primary, when he ran for Congress but lost. He fared better in 1966 when he was elected to the Indiana Legislature. He served a single two-year term, part of that time as House Majority Leader. In 1968 Ruckelshaus ran for U.S. Senate against Democrat Birch Bayh (b. 1928), a popular incumbent who was expected to win handily. Bayh indeed won, though his 3.5 percent margin of victory can hardly be said to be impressive. Still, the defeat was no setback for Ruckelshaus. By the late 1960s he was gaining increasing name recognition nationally, and it didn't hurt when he introduced presidential candidate Richard Nixon to a large crowd at a campaign stop in Indianapolis in September 1968. Not long after Nixon was elected in November, his office contacted Ruckelshaus and offered him a position at the Justice Department as an assistant attorney general. Ruckelshaus accepted and moved east with his family early in 1969.

It was one of the more turbulent times in late-twentieth century American history, coming hot on the heels of explosive race riots and large antiwar protests in 1967 and 1968. Ruckelshaus served in the Justice Department's civil division, and as part of his job he toured college campuses, partly to try to defuse tensions between youth and the Nixon administration, and partly to size up any potential for riots at the campuses. (In case students ran amok, Ruckelshaus was tasked with coordinating the federal response for the president. It helped to know what was happening at specific campuses.)

But his job changed with the new decade. In the spring of 1970 he was contacted by Jerry Hansler, an employee of the U.S. Public Health Service who had helped Ruckelshaus investigate pollution cases in Indiana in the early 1960s. Hansler asked him if he was interested in being named administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal agency being created from 15 units of existing organizations and agencies in order to tackle the country's pollution problems. "That's about as big a long shot as I've ever heard," retorted Ruckelshaus ("... Oral History Interview"). But the long shot came in. That November, President Nixon nominated Ruckelshaus as the first EPA administrator, and after approval by the Senate, he was sworn in on December 4, 1970.

EPA Administrator

Ruckelshaus later said he felt the EPA's first order of business should be to establish its credibility and to demonstrate its willingness to aggressively confront the nation's pollution problems. In 1970, pollution was a considerably more in-your-face problem than it would be some five decades later (despite the challenges faced in the twenty-first century by global warming). Large American cities were often choked with brown clouds of pollution that reduced visibility to a few miles on otherwise clear days. Highway shoulders were littered with paper sacks, cups, and other trash casually tossed from passing cars. Some waterways were so polluted that one of them, Lake Erie, was declared "dead" from a lack of oxygen caused by pollution and resulting in massive fish kills. Ruckelshaus did not wait to act. A week after he was sworn in, he gave the cities of Cleveland, Detroit, and Atlanta six months to start complying with water-quality standards or face enforcement action. Many were caught off guard by the bold move, but it was just the beginning.

That December, President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, which brought significant changes to the nation's air-quality program, including by requiring the EPA to set national standards for air quality. The biggest culprit was the automobile, and the Clean Air Act mandated a 90 percent reduction in three major pollutants emitted by cars -- hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides -- by 1976. America's carmakers groaned loudly and said the cost would boost the price of cars and sales of American vehicles would drop. They asked for a one-year extension to meet the new standards, but Ruckelshaus said no and in 1975 catalytic converters, which reduced noxious emissions, appeared in American cars. Another important EPA accomplishment during Ruckelshaus's years at the agency was the banning, in 1972, of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), a pesticide known to have deleterious effects on wildlife and to have long-lasting effects on the environment.

The FBI and the Saturday Night Massacre

In April 1973 Nixon tapped Ruckelshaus to replace the disgraced L. Patrick Gray (1916-2005) as acting director of the FBI. By this time Ruckelshaus had a reputation as "Mr. Clean," a particular plus in scandal-ridden 1973 America, and Nixon also admired his success in getting the EPA up and running. However, the FBI staff did not share the president's enthusiasm. Ruckelshaus was greeted on the first day of the job with a copy of a telegram asking Nixon to hire someone from within the FBI as Gray's permanent replacement. It was signed by more than a dozen assistant directors and nearly 60 field agents. It was not a slap at Ruckelshaus personally so much as the FBI wanting one of its own rather than someone seen as an outsider.

Ruckelshaus was at the FBI for slightly more than two months, and during his brief tenure news reports revealed that the Nixon administration had wiretapped government employees and members of the press. An FBI inquiry revealed further details, and Ruckelshaus appeared in front of reporters -- in the first formal press conference ever held by an FBI director -- both to explain the findings and in order to prevent them from leaking out and creating an even bigger furor. After Clarence Kelley (1911-1997) took over as FBI director in July 1973, Ruckelshaus was offered a job as deputy attorney general under Elliott Richardson (1920-1999). His service in this position was similarly brief, but this time it was because history intervened.

By October 1973 the Watergate conflagration was reaching new heights. (Watergate was a scandal that resulted from an illegal break-in at the Democratic Party's national headquarters by Republican operatives during the 1972 election campaign. Nixon's subsequent efforts to cover up the incident only brought more attention to the scandal, which was named after the office-hotel-apartment complex where the break-in occurred.) As part of the resulting criminal investigation, Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed tapes of conversations recorded in Nixon's office. Nixon refused to comply and instead offered a compromise, which Cox declined. In what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," on Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. Ruckelshaus next got the call from Chief of Staff Alexander Haig (1924-2010) demanding that Cox be fired. He too refused and resigned. The third man to get the call, Solicitor General Robert Bork (1927-2012), was more accommodating. Cox was dismissed, but this did not end Nixon's troubles. Eventually consumed by Watergate, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.

Ruckelshaus fared considerably better. He became part of the Washington, D.C., law firm of Ruckelshaus, Beveridge, & Fairbanks, and practiced law there for about two years. In 1976 he and his family moved to the Seattle area, where he served as senior vice president with the Weyerhaeuser Company for the next seven years. The family fell in love with the Northwest, and only reluctantly left in the spring of 1983 when Ruckelshaus was tapped once again, this time by President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), to be EPA administrator.

EPA Administrator Redux

It was a difficult time for the EPA. Between 1981 and 1983, the agency had floundered under the leadership of Anne Gorsuch (later Burford). Steep personnel cuts and infighting had thoroughly demoralized the agency. Allegations of favorable settlements by the EPA with companies liable for pollution-cleanup costs only added to the agency's woes. This and other issues led U.S. House of Representatives subcommittees to demand internal documents for further investigation. When Gorsuch (acting on President Reagan's instructions) declined to provide them, the House found her in contempt. Though the Justice Department declined to prosecute, Gorsuch saw the handwriting on the wall and resigned in March 1983.

Ruckelshaus was sworn in as the EPA's fifth administrator two months later. His first priorities were to stabilize the EPA and boost morale within the agency, while at the same time restoring its public credibility. Many staffers Ruckelshaus had worked with in the early 1970s remained at the EPA, but it was nevertheless a different agency than the one he left in 1973. One of the biggest changes was the creation of Superfund. Superfund was an EPA program established under the auspices of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), with the purpose of identifying and cleaning up the country's more hazardous waste sites. By 1983 more than 17,000 abandoned or inactive sites had been identified as an environmental threat, and more than 500 of these sites were eligible for cleanup. (Love Canal, a massive toxic landfill in upstate New York that sickened hundreds of nearby residents, was a glaring example.) If anything, the management of Superfund and the cleanup issues surrounding it proved to be even more challenging than the issues the EPA faced when first established in 1970.

Ruckelshaus faced a controversial chemical-pesticide problem during his second EPA tenure, just as he had in his first. This time, the chemical at issue was Ethylene Dibromide (EDB). EDB was used to fumigate grain and fruit, and to kill the Mediterranean fruit fly, a pest insect. Some studies had found EDB to be carcinogenic to animals and there was a growing fear that it could have a similar effect on humans. Ruckelshaus issued an emergency suspension against EDB in late 1983 and a partial ban was enacted a year later, preventing the chemical from being used as a soil and grain fumigant or for any purpose that might affect the food chain.

Later Years

Satisfied that he had put the EPA back on an even footing, Ruckelshaus left the agency in February 1985 and quickly returned to Seattle. He joined the prestigious law firm of Perkins Coie and was there for three years. A stint as CEO of the waste-management company Browning-Ferris Industries followed from 1988 until 1995, and he also rejoined Weyerhauser, serving on its board from 1989 until 2005. Ruckelshaus served as Browning-Ferris's chairman of the board from 1995 until 1999, and served on numerous other boards of other major companies, including Nordstrom, Monsanto, and Coinstar. Beginning in the mid-1990s he worked with the Madrona Venture Group, a venture-capital firm in Seattle that partnered with technology entrepreneurs. (Partner firms over the years included Bezos Expeditions, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Vulcan Capital, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.)

Ruckelshaus also served on nonprofit boards, including those of the Seattle Aquarium, the Washington News Council, and the Washington Roundtable, which in 2018 described itself as "work[ing] together to effect positive change on public policy issues that [our members] believe are most important to supporting state economic vitality and fostering opportunity for all Washingtonians" (Washington Roundtable website).

From 1993 to 1997 Ruckelshaus served on the President's Council for Sustainable Development under President Bill Clinton (b. 1946), and in 1997 Clinton appointed him U.S. envoy in negotiating the renewal of long-term fishing arrangements under the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada. In 2001 he was appointed by President George W. Bush (b. 1946) as a member of the Commission on Ocean Policy, and in 2003 he was appointed to the Science Advisory Board of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The following year he was named chairman of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a joint effort of Washington State University and the University of Washington. In 2018, the center described its mission as one "to help parties involved in complex public policy challenges in the State of Washington and the Pacific Northwest tap university expertise to develop collaborative, durable, and effective solutions" ("Mission," Ruckelshaus Center website).

In 2007 Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) appointed Ruckelshaus to lead a new state agency, the Puget Sound Partnership, formed by the legislature that year to restore and protect Puget Sound. The agency ranked and prioritized projects dedicated to restoring and protecting the Sound, working with local tribes, business communities, state and local governments, and federal agencies to accomplish its goals. By the time Ruckelshaus stepped down in 2010 the partnership had completed or had underway more than 600 projects, creating more than 15,000 direct and indirect jobs in the Puget Sound region.

In recognition of his exceptional service to the country, Ruckelshaus received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama (b. 1961) in November 2015. And in May 2017, Bill and Jill Ruckelshaus jointly received the 79th Seattle-King County First Citizen Award, presented by Seattle King County Realtors, in recognition of their contributions to the community. Like her husband, Jill Ruckelshaus had worked to effect change since their days in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s, when she was a White House special assistant in women's rights in the Nixon administration. She earned the nickname "Gloria Steinem of the Republican party" ("Jill Ruckelshaus ...") from her detractors, but far from being distracted, she went on to become known for her work to improve opportunities for women. During the 1980s she served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission under both President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) and President Ronald Reagan. Jill Ruckelshaus also served on boards of major Seattle-area firms, including Fred Meyer, Seafirst, and Costco. In 2014, she was named a Woman of Influence by the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Bill Ruckelshaus died on November 27, 2019 at age 87. 


"William D. Ruckelshaus: Oral History Interview," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website accessed March 26, 2018 (; Jack Lewis, "The Birth of EPA," EPA website accessed March 28, 2018 (; "Biography of William D. Ruckelshaus: First Term," EPA website accessed March 28, 2018 (; Trova Heffernan, "Bill Ruckelshaus," Washington Secretary of State Legacy Washington website accessed March 26, 2018 (; Clare Crawford, "From Watergate to Womankind, Bill and Jill Ruckelshaus Fight for Their Ideas," People magazine, April 12, 1976 (; Warren Cornwall, "Huge Task Faces Puget Sound's Anointed Savior," The Seattle Times, May 20, 2007, p. A-1; Rachel Lerman, "Madrona Venture Raises $300M," Ibid., May 22, 2018, p. A-7; Mark Worth, "The Ruckelshaus Connection, " Seattle Weekly, November 11, 1998 (; Lois Romano, "Jill Ruckelshaus, Back in the Fishbowl," The Washington Post, May 18, 1983 (; "Pacific Salmon Treaty," Fisheries and Oceans Canada website accessed April 1, 2018 (; "William D. Ruckelshaus," Madrona Venture Group website accessed March 22, 2018 (; "Our Campaigns -- In US Senate Race -- Nov 05, 1968," Our Campaigns website accessed March 27, 2018 (; "Bill Ruckelshaus to Retire from Puget Sound Partnership's Leadership Council," Pacific Northwest Aquatic Monitoring Partnership website accessed May 17, 2018 (; "Jill S. Ruckelshaus," Prabook website accessed May 16, 2018 (; "About the Partnership," Puget Sound Partnership website accessed May 17, 2018 (; Washington Roundtable website accessed May 17, 2018 (; The William D. Ruckelshaus Center website accessed April 1, 2018 (; "William D. Ruckelshaus," Ruckelshaus Center website accessed April 1, 2018 (; "Seattle Area's William Ruckelshaus, Who Refused to Join in Nixon's 'Saturday Night Massacre,' Dies at 87," The Seattle Times, November 27, 2019 (www. Note: This essay was updated November 27, 2019.

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