Page 2 of 2   <      

Stewart L. Udall, 90, interior secretary was guardian of America's wild places

As secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Udall launched a series of far-reaching conservation reforms that made him one of the most significant figures in protecting America's natural environment.

Stewart Lee Udall was born Jan. 31, 1920, into a Mormon family in St. Johns, Ariz. His father was a chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, but Mr. Udall hardly led a life of privilege as a child.

"I grew up on the tail of the frontier," he told the Arizona Daily Star in 2005. "I plowed fields with horses and worked as a hired hand in high school for 50 cents a day."

He attended the University of Arizona, spent two years on a Mormon mission on the East Coast, then served as a B-24 tail gunner in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

After the war, he returned to the University of Arizona, where he played basketball and graduated from law school in 1948. He opened a law practice in Tucson with his younger brother Morris K. "Mo" Udall (D), who took over Stewart's seat in the House in 1961 and served until 1991. Mo Udall died in 1998.

Stewart Udall was elected to the House in 1954 and was an advocate of civil rights and an early supporter of home rule for the District of Columbia. Although best known for his fierce protection of the environment, he made several other contributions to Washington history. As a friend of Robert Frost, he arranged for the poet to read at Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Mr. Udall also had a direct hand in integrating the Washington Redskins football team.

The Redskins -- the last team in any major professional sport to integrate -- were set to begin playing in a new stadium (which Mr. Udall later named for Robert F. Kennedy) that sat on land owned by the National Park Service. In March 1961, Mr. Udall sent a sharply worded letter to Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, warning him that he was in danger of criminal prosecution if the team violated anti-discrimination laws. In 1962, Bobby Mitchell became the first black player to take the field for the Redskins.

After leaving the Cabinet in 1969, Mr. Udall ran an international environmental consulting firm in Washington for several years. Beginning in 1978, Mr. Udall and a team of investigators -- including four of his six children -- spent years probing the reasons for higher rates of cancer among people who had lived near a nuclear test site in Nevada in the 1950s and '60s. He kept up the legal fight for more than 20 years and helped draft the 1990 "Radiation Exposure Compensation Act," which offered reparations to the families of cancer patients affected by atomic radiation.

He published a book in 1994, "The Myths of August," about the long-term environmental and health effects of nuclear weapons.

In 1989, Mr. Udall settled in Santa Fe and continued to write and lecture. He lived long enough to become something of a grand old man of the environmental movement, but he also saw some of his accomplishments come under attack. He lashed out at the Interior Department under George W. Bush in a column for the Los Angeles Times in 2004.

"The Bush administration, determined to ransack public lands for the last meager pockets of petroleum," Mr. Udall wrote, "has turned my old department into a servile, single-minded adjunct of the Energy Department."

His wife of 54 years, Erma Lee Webb Udall, died in 2001.

His son Tom Udall is a Democratic U.S. senator representing New Mexico; a nephew, Mo Udall's son Mark Udall (D), represents Colorado in the U.S. Senate.

Other survivors include five children and eight grandchildren.

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company