William Doyle Ruckelshaus was born July 24, 1932 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
He finished high school in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, at the Portsmouth Abbey School.
After graduation, he served for two years in the United States Army, becoming a drill sergeant, and left the service in 1955.
Ruckelshaus then graduated from Princeton University before attending Harvard Law School.
After graduating from Harvard and passing the Indiana bar exam, Ruckelshaus joined the family law firm of Ruckelshaus, Bobbitt, and O’Connor.
Then in 1960, at the age of 28, he became Deputy Attorney General of Indiana.
Ruckelshaus then ran in 1964 as a moderate Republican for an Indiana Congressional seat, losing in the primaries to a candidate from the conservative wing of the party.
In 1967, he then won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives, becoming Majority Leader of the House in his first term.
Ruckelshaus then won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1968, but lost in the general election 51%-48% to Birch Bayh.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed Ruckelshaus as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Division for the U.S. Department of Justice.
William Ruckelshaus became the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s first Administrator when the agency was formed on December 2, 1970, by President Nixon.
Although many people were mentioned as possibilities for this new position, Ruckelshaus got the nod based upon the strong recommendation of the U.S. Attorney General, John Mitchell.
Ruckelshaus laid the foundation for the EPA by hiring its leaders, defining its mission, deciding priorities, and selecting an organizational structure.
With the formation of EPA, authority over pesticides was transferred to it from the Department of Agriculture. The fledgling EPA’s first order of business was whether to issue a ban of DDT. Judge Edmund Sweeney was appointed to examine the case and held testimony hearings for seven months. His conclusion was that DDT “is not a carcinogenic hazard to man” and that “there is a present need for the essential uses of DDT”.
However, Ruckelshaus (who had not attended the hearings himself) overruled Sweeney’s decision and issued the ban nevertheless, claiming that DDT was a “potential human carcinogen.”
Then in April of 1973, in the growing midst of the Watergate scandal, there was a major reshuffling of Nixon administration posts, due to the resignations of White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and Domestic Affairs Advisor John Ehrlichman.
Ruckelshaus’s record of success at EPA and his reputation for integrity led to his being appointed Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Later in 1973, Ruckelshaus was appointed Deputy Attorney General of the United States Department of Justice.
In an event known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”, Ruckelshaus and his boss, Elliot Richardson, famously resigned their positions within the Justice Department rather than obey an order from President Nixon to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was investigating official misconduct on the part of the president and his aides.
Initially, the White House claimed to have fired Ruckelshaus, but as The Washington Post article written October 21, 1973 pointed out, “The letter from the President to Solicitor General Bork indicated Ruckelshaus resigned.”
From 1983 through 1985, Ruckelshaus returned as EPA Administrator under President Reagan.
Of his two tenures at EPA, Ruckelshaus later reflected:
“I’ve had an awful lot of jobs in my lifetime, and in moving from one to another, have had the opportunity to think about what makes them worthwhile. I’ve concluded there are four important criteria: interest, excitement, challenge, and fulfillment. I’ve never worked anywhere where I could find all four to quite the same extent as at EPA. I can find interest, challenge, and excitement as [board chair of a company]. I do have an interesting job. But it is tough to find the same degree of fulfillment I found in the government. At EPA, you work for a cause that is beyond self-interest and larger than the goals people normally pursue. You’re not there for the money, you’re there for something beyond yourself.”
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