Former Governor Russell Peterson Has Died

Filed in National by on February 22, 2011

Former Delaware Governor Russell Peterson has died.

Former Delaware governor Russell W. Peterson, known for his environmental efforts, died Monday evening at age 94.

His most memorable effort came in the Coastal Zone Act of 1971, for which he was known worldwide. He also was known globally for his efforts to protect coastlines beyond Delaware. Peterson advised Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter on environmental policy, and later became president of the National Audubon Society.

His wife, June, said he died at 8:10 p.m. at home. She said he had been declining for some time. He suffered a stroke Monday morning and his system gave up, she said.

Just by reading this short excerpt of his biography, you can already see how unusual he was. He could work across party lines and was a fierce protector of the environment. What governor could you say that about today? Plus, he was a chemist!

Some of the highlights of his career include:

• Peterson’s first official act as governor was to send the National Guard home after 10 months of duty in Wilmington, where they had been deployed by Gov. Charles Terry after rioting that followed the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

• Peterson reshaped Delaware’s government by eliminating more than 100 commissions and boards, called “fiefdoms” by some observers, and forming an 11-man Cabinet.

• He did away with Delaware’s scourge — Red Hannah — the nation’s last whipping post.

• He defended Delaware’s coastline from Shell Oil Co.’s expansion plans — first ordering a moratorium on coastal development, then working tirelessly for passage of the Coastal Zone Act. The landmark 1971 law outlawed heavy industrial development on the state’s coasts, infuriated many in Delaware’s business and political communities, and spawned similar efforts around the world.

• He appointed the first black member of the University of Delaware’s board of trustees — Arva Jackson — insisted on recruitment of the first black members of the Delaware State Police, and pressed for the state’s open housing law.

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Opinionated chemist, troublemaker, blogger on national and Delaware politics.

Comments (22)

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  1. Until his passing Monday night, Russ Peterson was simply Delaware’s greatest living citizen.

    While it is unfortunate that his single term as governor was undone by some serious fiscal missteps, his accomplishments were singular, especially for the time, and continue to shape the state today.

    And, much like Jimmy Carter, he built an enduring legacy after he left office. He played an essential role in developing a progressive environmental policy for the nation, back in the days when science was actually respected in a bipartisan manner.

    At the state level he was the driving force behind the revitalization of Wilmington’s riverfront, and is fittingly remembered via the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge.

    Lest anyone think that this was merely sort-of an honorary designation, it was Russ Peterson’s vision and Russ Peterson’s tireless work as the co-chair (along with Dr. E. A. Trabant) of the Rivers Task Force that brought this vision to fruition. He worked and worked until it finally got done.

    He was a very likable person as well who could work across all kinds of lines, and not merely political lines.

    As a public servant and a private citizen, former Gov. Russell W. Peterson led a life that we all would do well to follow. He left this place a far better place thanks to his vision, his work ethic, and his conscience. He can rest in peace knowing that his legacy is firmly secure, and that others will be inspired to further his work, inspired by the refuge that bears his name.

  2. ‘Bulo, you should really elevate that comment to a blog post.

  3. john kowalko says:

    Governor Peterson was a friend of the environment and those less fortunate. I am proud to say he was a friend of mine and we spoke many times about environmental issues that he would urge me to continue championing. I feel like we let Governor Peterson down by not appealing the dredging decision solely on the grounds of State autonomy and to preserve the Governor’s historic “Coastal Zone Protection Act” We may have weakened it more by our failure to react than any of the previous attacks on it.
    John Kowalko

  4. mediawatch says:

    Well said, El Som.
    He was the first Delaware governor I met, shortly after arriving here in ’72, and it’s a shame some financial miscalculations brought him down. Surely we would have made more progress under Russ Peterson than we did under Sherman Tribbitt.
    Years later, I had the pleasure of working a bit with him on his last book, “Patriots, Stand Up,” a feisty critique of George W. Bush’s first term, and in publicizing the launch of SURJ, the criminal justice reform group whose influence is being felt more each year.
    Russ Peterson cared for all of us, worked for all of us, and he certainly left Delaware a better place.
    Delaware’s greatest living citizen? I think I’d agree, but you’d never get Russ to acknowledge such a well-merited designation.

  5. Dana Garrett says:

    I once heard him give a well reasoned speech on prison reform. He spoke out against criminalizing substance abusers. I thought at the time that I wished he were President.

  6. anon says:

    In one of our meetings,Gov. Peterson told me about why he stopped being a republican. He spoke about the Republican convention he and his wife attended. Nelson Rockefeller was running for President. When he came out on the convention floor those in attendance began screaming, “kill him, kill him”. Peterson stated he and his wife looked at each other and unison got up and left that convention. He came back to Delaware and gave up his republican id. This man was one of the kindest, smartest, republicans in this state. He truly cared about the poor, working class, and as Dana state, he was all about decriminalization of drugs and hated “mandatory sentencing”. If he were Governor today, the Teabaggers would be screaming “kill him, kill him” and touting him as a traitor. His book is a great read.

  7. Republican David says:

    Anon turns a nice thread into a political attack. Can we us an open thread for that and celebrate an American life? I will say he was a pioneer with civil rights in Delaware. Condolances to the family and friends.

  8. anon says:

    The truth is the truth.

  9. Capt.Willard says:

    Yeah,Russ came in for the environment a LITTLE late. Fuck him!
    duPont,Hercules,Atlas chemicals etc.had already FUCKED UP our air and water beyond all repair.
    Witness Cloromone and other debacles.
    He got RELIGION when he WANTED to be saved from the evil he’d been doing for duPont.
    I say again: FUCK HIM, I hope HE BURNS!!!!!

  10. Von Cracker says:

    Wow, save that for the Cock Koch Bros., man!

    Back in college, I wound-up knowing Peterson’s grandson. A real solid guy. Condolences to him and his entire family.

  11. Bob Phillips says:

    When I was 9 or 10, my parents were staying in Rehoboth with another couple and I was along for the trip. Governor Peterson was there also, since the husband in the couple we were visiting happened to have been the Governor’s campaign manager in 1968. Russ Peterson saw I was looking at a copy of Life magazine that happened to be lying around and took the time to come and sit with me. He discussed a couple of the articles featured in that edition- the Vietnam war and an environmental mess I really don’t remember (but the photos looked disgusting). I will always remember and be grateful for the time he took to help me think about and understand some truly terrible things that were happening then. Those 10 or 15 minutes made a lasting impression on me and have helped shape my career.

  12. Belinsky says:

    Since Willard violated every standard of conduct, and proves himself ignorant of the topic, can he be suspended, and that hideous post removed?

  13. anon II says:

    It is undeniably true that today’s Delaware Republican party would not support a Russ Peterson, in fact,they would be trying to humiliate him and oust him from any type of leadership position within the party, and Republican David and his moronic blog would be leading the crazies.

  14. Newshound says:

    Just like the Arizona shooting, some liberals cannot detach themselves for one minute, from politicizing a truly sad day for all Delawareans.

    Peterson did a lot of good work, especially after his governorship. God bless him and his family!

  15. The Straight Scoop says:

    Newshound, while I agree that politicizing a tragic loss like this is wrong, I’ll quickly note how easy it is to astroturf through an anonymous handle, especially one that hasn’t been seen here before. (If one of the regulars had said what “anon II” said, I’d agree with you 100%.)

    That being said, I was at Russ’ 92nd birthday celebration. It was an amazing outpouring of love and support. I loved what Russ said so much that I wrote some of it down:

    “Over my long life, I’ve been a happy warrior in the battle to be of service to others. Service has been a sacred, joyous duty. I recommend it to those starting out on their search for happiness and self-fulfillment.”

  16. PI says:

    I would say Capt Willard’s post is unworthy of being here and should be removed.

  17. Geezer says:

    Hey Cap: You have an ugly mouth and an uglier spirit. Why don’t you go back to doing whatever it was you used to do before you found this site?

  18. That’s it. You wanna get moderated, Willard? Consider yourself moderated.

    I mean, really, this is a thread on the death of Russell Peterson. Post this stuff elsewhere.

  19. Geezer says:

    Capt. Rat: If you have any details of the “evil” Mr. Peterson did as a research chemist and, later, manager at DuPont, feel free to discuss details. But I have a hunch you don’t.

  20. john kowalko says:

    My vote is remove Capt. Dullard’s remarks they are are more than a little offensive and inappropriate for a civil discourse, even a hostile discourse.
    John Kowalko

  21. La Narcolepsia says:

    As people of both parties fall over themselves to eulogize Gov. Peterson, I think it is indeed fair game to point out that thoughtful moderate Republicans are a thing of the past. Teddy and Abe would both be vilified and primaried by Tea Party’ers today. The EPA, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, NEPA all happened on Nixon’s watch. Now you have Rs like McCain renouncing their moderate positions of just a few years ago. And suddenly Orrin Hatch is not conservative enough.

  22. June Eisley says:

    Please remove Capt. Willard’s comments and keep his sick and hateful mind off of here forever.