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William Ruckelshaus, who defied Nixon at height of Watergate, dies at 87

Ruckelshaus also served as the first administrator of the EPA and was remembered as a fierce conservationist.
IMAGE: William Ruckelshaus in 1972
William D. Ruckelshaus, then the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, at a news conference in Miami Beach on Aug. 17, 1972.Bob Daugherty / AP

SEATTLE — William D. Ruckelshaus, who famously quit his job in the U.S. Justice Department rather than carry out President Richard Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, has died. He was 87.

Ruckelshaus also served as the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, which confirmed his death on Wednesday.

Ruckelshaus, a lifelong Republican, also served as acting director of the FBI. But his moment of fame came on Oct. 20, 1973, when he was a deputy attorney general and joined his boss, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, in resigning rather than carry out Nixon's unlawful order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.

After Richardson and Ruckelshaus resigned, Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out the firing in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre" — prompting protests and outrage around the country. Impeachment proceedings against Nixon began 10 days later.

"He was incorruptible," Martha Kongsgaard, a longtime friend and philanthropist in Seattle, said Wednesday. "It was very disappointing for him to see this happening again in our country, and maybe on a larger scale. Deep decency in the face of corruption is needed now more than ever."

Ruckelshaus' civic service and business career spanned decades and coasts, marked by two stints at the EPA under Nixon and Ronald Reagan, a failed U.S. Senate bid in 1968 and top positions at Weyerhaeuser Co. and Browning-Ferris Industries.

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Ruckelshaus spent much of his life focused on air and water pollution and other environmental issues. As Indiana's young attorney general, he sought court orders to prevent industries and cities from polluting waters, and in his later years, he was the Pacific Northwest's most high-profile advocate for cleaning up Puget Sound in Washington state.

As the first EPA administrator, from 1970 to 1973, he won praise for pushing automakers to tighten controls on air pollution. Shortly after taking over the agency, he ordered the mayors of Detroit, Atlanta and Cleveland to stop polluting waters and took actions against U.S. Steel and dozens of other water polluters.

Reagan asked him back to the EPA in 1983 to help restore public trust after the previous administrator — Anne M. Gorsuch, the mother of current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over documents about her agency's allegedly lax efforts to clean up toxic waste.

Ruckelshaus' wife, Jill, likened his return to a "self-inflicted Heimlich maneuver," but Ruckelshaus said he accepted the job because he thought he could right the ship, help staff refocus on their work and re-establish the EPA's credibility.

Several thousand EPA employees greeted his return with thunderous applause. One sign read, "How do you spell relief? Ruckelshaus."

Reflecting on his long career of public service and private enterprise in 2001, Ruckelshaus ranked his time at the EPA as one of the most fulfilling and challenging.

"At EPA, you worked for a cause that is beyond self-interest and larger than the goals people normally pursue," he said in an EPA oral history interview. "You're not there for the money, you're there for something beyond yourself."

William Doyle Ruckelshaus was born in 1932 in Indianapolis to a line of politically active lawyers. His grandfather had been the Indiana chairman of the Republican Party in 1900, and his father was the platform committee chairman at five Republican National Conventions.

He told The Los Angeles Times in 1971 that his personal interest in nature and conservation was rooted in his childhood, when his father took him fishing in northern Michigan.

Between his stints at the EPA, Ruckelshaus moved his family and five children to the Seattle area, where he had spent two years out of high school as an Army drill sergeant at what was then called Fort Lewis. He graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

In the Northwest, Ruckelshaus led federal efforts to recover Chinook salmon and steered an ambitious state initiative to clean up and restore Puget Sound, where salmon and orcas are in danger.

Denis Hayes, who coordinated the first Earth Day in 1970, once called Ruckelshaus "a Republican environmental hero," and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire described him as "big as the great outdoors."