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In Praise of Peterson

No one becomes a legend because he took the easy road. Former DuPont company man, former governor, former Republican, Russell W. Peterson has always been one thing—an underdog. But when it comes to protecting the planet, he put our little state on the map.

By Doug Donovan

Peterson and his wife, June, relax by the pond in their yard. This month, an urban wildlife refuge that bears his name will open on the Wilmington Riverfront that he worked so hard to restore. Photograph by Pat Crowe IIWeeks after last year’s race for governor, victor Jack Markell took a well deserved vacation with his family on the island of St. John. Considering he would soon be sworn in to a job that was guaranteed to crimp his family time, the trip was the best way to escape the politics of previous months and recharge for the pressures of office.

But the getaway wasn’t all about sun, sand and surf. Markell also made time to dine with another Delaware governor who happens to vacation on St. John—Russell W. Peterson.

Markell was 9 when Peterson, now 92, was elected four decades ago, yet their meeting made perfect sense. Markell is betting clean energy will help spur jobs and investment in Delaware. Peterson, as governor, rejected the promise of massive economic development by oil companies that wanted to transform our coast into the East Coast hub of dirty energy.

Peterson’s work in passing the Coastal Zone Act in 1971 protected the coastline from the construction of several refineries, but it also made him unpopular. At the time, business leaders and construction unions accused Peterson, a former DuPont executive, of betraying his old employer and, in the wake of a recession, depriving state residents of jobs.

“His willingness to stand up to powerful interests and do what he thought was right is inspirational,” Markell says. Peterson’s advice to Markell during their discussions: Do the right thing—regardless of the politics. “I was encouraging him how to carry out the job as governor,” Peterson says.

Markell may not have wanted all of Peterson’s advice—Peterson did, after all, miss reelection in 1972—but he provides a powerful example.

Without Peterson’s leadership in passing the Coastal Zone Act, much of the northern Delaware coast would be spiked with oil refinery towers and shrouded in smog. Think Delaware City. Just offshore, two islands built of dredged bay-bottom muck would hold hulking mounds of coal and iron ore. Neither came to pass, despite ardent support.

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“He stood up when a lot of people wouldn’t and said, ‘Enough already. We’re going to preserve the natural beauty of the state and its coastal resources,’” U.S. Senator Tom Carper says.

Some 30 years later, after a career of environmental activism that has taken him around the world, Peterson has come full circle. One generation may have known him as the Republican governor who passed the Coastal Zone Act. But today the Democratic convert may be just as well known for saving another Delaware shoreline.

Without Peterson’s influence, the Christiana River might still be a poison snake winding along the industrial edge of Wilmington, not the vibrant ribbon that wraps the city’s shining new riverfront. It took the resolve of governors, lawmakers, and private industry to renew the area, and Peterson was the fulcrum.

“He was not just present at the creation, he was the source of inspiration,” says Carper, who kicked off the riverfront’s redevelopment during his time as governor. “He has a remarkable legacy.”

So much so that the state has placed an 8-foot-tall bronze statue of Peterson on the eastern end of the riverfront as a gateway to the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge. One of only a few urban refuges in the country, it opens this month.
 

Not Just Another DuPonter 

For the highlights of Peterson’s career, you could stroll the hallway to his home office, where drawings by Jack Jurden, formerly of The News Journal, tell the tale.

One cartoon shows Peterson chopping down the state’s whipping post. As governor, Peterson ended that punishment. Another depicts him telling a National Guardsman, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” Peterson recalled soldiers from their nine-month deployment on Wilmington’s streets after the 1968 riots.

A third portrays a smiling Peterson standing among admiring woodland creatures beneath a banner that reads “Conservationist of the Year.” The National Wildlife Federation gave him the award in 1971.

A Wisconsin native, Peterson plunged into college, marriage and parenthood right after high school. In his junior year at the University of Wisconsin, he married a fellow student from his hometown, Lillian Turner. Before he graduated, the couple had their first of four children. Their second arrived just days after he received his doctorate in chemistry in June 1942. Later that month he moved his family to Wilmington to become a research chemist for DuPont.
 

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Peterson soared through the ranks of research, sales and manufacturing. On a fast track to management, he oversaw manufacturing of one of the company’s best-selling products, the polyester fiber Dacron, in North Carolina.

His corporate trajectory slowed in the 1960s when he pushed to promote several African American employees. DuPont refused, but as pressure from Washington mounted for such actions, the promotions proceeded.

“He had a lot of guts,” says his friend Howard Brokaw, 92, of Wilmington, a former DuPont colleague. “If he thought it was right, he would just do it. If it was popular, great. It was easier to get it done. If not, he’d fight to find out how to get it done.”

Peterson and his family prospered at DuPont, and they spent much time engaged in his favorite pursuit, birding, often on the coast. Yet Peterson itched to pursue a path beyond business development. He wanted to solve social problems, so he became active in First Unitarian Church’s social action committee and the Republican Party.

Years of work included statewide lobbying that led to reforms of the corrections and juvenile justice systems. Peterson’s work caught the attention of two powerful Republicans, State Senator Reynolds DuPont and donor Harry G. Haskell Jr. They asked Peterson to run for governor against incumbent Democrat Charles L. Terry Jr.

After only a few years as a community organizer, Peterson leapfrogged scores of veteran elected officials for a chance at Delaware’s top job. He attributes his underdog victory in 1968 to his ability to organize residents, his 11th-hour use of television ads and Terry’s refusal to end the nine-month presence of National Guard in Wilmington’s black neighborhoods.

Peterson went to work immediately. Within an hour of his swearing-in on January 21, 1969, he ordered the troops out of town. Their deployment following the riots spurred by the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was the “longest occupation of an American city in national history since the Civil War,” according to The News Journal.

Peterson later closed the debtors prison and ended the punishment of public whippings. He then set out to transform the landscape of state politics. He convinced the legislature to eliminate the nearly 150 commissions, appointed by the governor, that controlled government operations. Despite a failed attempt by the previous governor and fierce opposition from hundreds of people in patronage positions, Peterson convinced the legislature to authorize a cabinet-style executive branch.

 That was his first year. But the real work was slowly drifting in on a rising tide.
 

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The Birdman vs. the Oilmen

Many assumed a former DuPont executive and Republican would be a big business ally. But Peterson was not privy to the designs of the industrial establishment. Unknown to him and most other Delawareans, the U.S. secretary of commerce had been working with several oil companies to make Delaware Bay the main supertanker port and industrial center of the East.

Shell Oil had plans to build a refinery near Woodland Beach, next to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and a company owned by George H.W. Bush wanted to build two islands to store coal for export and iron ore for import. The plans would have spoiled Peterson’s beloved coast.

In 1970 he imposed a moratorium on all industrial development along the river and bay shores, including the Shell refinery, to prepare a land-use study. No one protested. A year later he announced plans for the Coastal Zone Act. The industrial and political establishments hit the ceiling.

For proposing to prohibit all new heavy industry in an area 115 miles long and two miles wide, former DuPont colleagues, Peterson’s political party, campaign supporters and the Nixon Administration called him a traitor.

Maurice Stans, director of the U.S. Commerce Department under President Nixon, hosted Peterson at a meeting with 25 staff members to explain his agency’s interest in turning Delaware into a “major center of maritime commerce.”

When Peterson resisted, Stans “stood up, looked straight in my eyes and said, ‘We think you are being disloyal to our country.’ I jumped up and said, ‘Hell, no. I’m being loyal to future generations,’” Peterson says.

With a lot of last-minute arm-twisting by Peterson, the Coastal Zone Act survived a gutting oil industry amendment by one vote. The victory planted Delaware at the center of the dawning environmental movement. “We became known throughout the world,” Peterson says. So did he.
 

 It Wasn’t Easy Being Green

In addition to the conservationist of the year award, Peterson was awarded the World Wildlife Fund’s Gold Medal. International praise, however, did not translate on the local stage. “I really became persona non grata in Delaware,” Peterson says.

He recalls one especially chilly reception during the 1972 re-election campaign, when he was invited to speak to an electrical workers union. All tables were filled except for one in front of the podium.
 

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“The president of the union calls me up to the podium, and the whole crowd boos me,” Peterson says. “He points to me and says, ‘Here’s the guy who destroyed all of those job opportunities along the coast.’ And again they booed.”

Shortly after Peterson spoke, trumpets sounded in the rear of the hall to announce the entry of Sherman Tribbitt, his Democratic challenger. The crowd roared with approval as Tribbitt and his entourage sat at the empty table. “That’s what you call rough treatment,” Peterson says.

Rougher still was watching former supporters turn against him. “They were so mad at the Coastal Zone Act destroying opportunities to make money and provide jobs,” he says.

But the election launched his environmental career. “I was lucky to lose the election,” he says. “Overnight I was offered big jobs—none in Delaware.”

After a brief stint working for Nelson Rockefeller in New York, the same Nixon Administration that had tried to defeat the Coastal Zone Act asked Peterson to direct the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. Though George H.W. Bush and oil industry lobbyists attempted to derail his confirmation by Congress, Peterson was approved easily. He believed he would have an impact on the world’s environment. “At last, I had the job I wanted,” he writes.

Peterson ran into Bush again when the Texas oilman chaired the Republican National Committee. Bush was barely cordial, Peterson says. Later, as director of President Gerald Ford’s Council on Environmental Quality, Peterson got the same cold shoulder from Ford’s chief of staff.

“I reported directly to President Ford, whose deputy chief of staff was a guy named Dick Cheney. Cheney despised environmentalists, particularly me because I was a Republican doing all this damned liberal stuff. Whenever I got near that guy, he’d look at me with daggers.”
 

Back on the Rise

Peterson went on to lead Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment in 1976, then, three years later, began a six-year term as president of the National Audubon Society. He never left the national or international environmental stages, and his work won him many high-profile friends: Ted Turner, Jimmy Carter, Jacques Cousteau.

His book is filled with photographs of Peterson with influential figures—behind Mother Theresa at the United Nations, with President Ford in the Oval Office, holding hands with Al Gore at a rally.
 

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It wasn’t until 1992 that Peterson returned to the Delaware stage. Having told state Senator Robert Marshall to ask Governor Mike Castle to study the Christina and Brandywine, Peterson was appointed to co-chair a commission. Castle’s successor, Tom Carper, insisted on Peterson’s continued help in restoring the waterways’ natural habitats. There was no guarantee of success, but for many, Peterson was a reassuring presence. “He’s got a stubbornness, a firmness, an unshakable resolve,” says Michael S. Purzycki, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation.

As Peterson and past University of Delaware president Art Trabant set out on their task in 1993, the state struggled with a recession. As the economy improved, he was able to secure enough public and private funding to make it happen. “He was always the spiritual leader of this place,” Purzycki says. “He’s an indispensable party.”

As the project progressed, Peterson lost his wife of 57 years. In 1995 he married June Jenkins. A year later, News Journal cartoonist Jurden drew Peterson with another new love: the Democratic Party. The co-chair of Republicans for Clinton-Gore in 1996 left the GOP that same year.

In 1998 his passion for the Riverfront started paying off. Several of its projects began opening, and the restoration of the 200-acre tidal marsh—which is essentially finishing a decade later—got underway.

Peterson hopes the refuge will make kids aware of the importance of the environment. The $4 million spent to restore the marshes have helped the tides to flow in their natural path again. “Native species are growing in the marsh,” Peterson says. “Animals have returned.”

And so have people and businesses. Environmental restoration coupled with economic development—that was always his argument for protecting the coast: Destroy the coast and the state would have one less selling point to attract businesses. It was a long-shot argument, but it defeated the country’s most powerful forces.

As President Carter once said, Peterson has always been a “champion of the underdog”—such as Carter’s failed 1980 re-election bid. Peterson’s own election in 1969 was unlikely, but he won. Replacing Delaware’s commission-style government was unpopular, but he made it happen. Restoring Wilmington’s waterways and their natural habitats was not a guaranteed success, but the project is thriving.

Last year, Peterson waded back into local politics when he supported yet another underdog. On primary night, the Democratic establishment held a posh gathering for then-Lieutenant Governor John Carney, the party’s favorite for governor. Peterson chose to await election results at Markell’s threadbare headquarters. Even Markell wasn’t there.

“If Governor Peterson was trying to gain points, he would have been over at Carney’s headquarters,” says John Lake of Green Delaware. “At either place, he would have been a hero. He decided to be there for Jack Markell, to go against the establishment.”

These days, after a lifetime traversing the globe, the greenest of governors can most often be found at home in Greenville with June. Sitting at a window, he watches the birds nibble at the feeders outside. As a thieving squirrel leaps to one of the bird feeders, Peterson taps the glass to scare it off. Beneath the feeder, water trickles down a stone waterfall and toward a broad pond with tree-shaded banks.

It’s yet one more waterfront for Peterson to admire and protect.