Pioneer Penguin

Denis Hayes speaking at the first national Earth Day in 1970. Clark College graduate Denis Hayes was chosen by a U.S. Senator to organize the first national Earth Day in 1970. Photo provided by the Bullitt Foundation.

Fifth Avenue was shut down for hours as crowds swarmed to get to an environmental peace rally in New York. Extreme demonstrators at Boston’s Logan International Airport laid in coffins, staging a “die-in” to protest airplane pollution. One hundred students charged down a freeway in Tacoma, Washington on horseback to protest auto emissions.  A woman marching in a parade in Philadelphia wore a sign around her neck that read, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The country was alive and responding to the call for environmental awareness of 1964, said Clark graduate Denis Hayes. Sen. Gaylord Nelson chose Hayes to coordinate the first official Earth Day in 1970.  

Denis Hayes.

Denis Hayes Photograph by Nic Lehoux

“Sen. Nelson thought the time was right in 1969 to bring public attention to wildlife and environmental issues,” Hayes said.

Hayes, now 71, was studying human ecology at Harvard when he attended an educational lecture about the environment by Sen. Nelson. Hayes had hoped to get involved with Nelson, and sure enough, they talked for a few hours about how to organize something on a national level.

Two days later, Hayes received a phone call that changed his life forever.

“Sen. Nelson’s office called me and said, ‘Can you drop out of Harvard and come lead this movement for the nation?,’” Hayes said.

Determined to work in the environmental field, his decision was simple.  “To have the chance to do something like this at a young age was unreal,” Hayes said.

Hayes quickly assembled a staff comprised of some classmates.  Working out of an office in Washington D.C., they each coordinated for a region of the nation by sending out newsletters, writing articles and holding speaking engagements.

“There were no computers, this was all done with mail and telephone calls and by working the grass roots personally,” Hayes said.

This was a time when young people were bringing about social change through efforts like the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests. Hayes expressed that it was “fashionable for college students” to get involved in these types of activities.

“We encouraged them to move off of their campus with their efforts and into their cities,” Hayes said.

The biggest advocate for this movement was the media.

“We received unusually good press coverage,” Hayes said.

According to Hayes, the news spread like wildfire and the response was electric. Soon 20,000 K-12 schools were involved.  

“This was universal for everybody, except those producing the problem,” Hayes said.

Five months later, on April 22, 1970, CBS News reported that one in 10 citizens came together to celebrate Earth Day across America.  Earth Day continues to be on that day each year.

These efforts led to the passing of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is responsible for protecting the environment and human health by enforcing laws that Congress has passed.

According to the Earth Day Network, Earth Day is now the largest international secular event in the world with more than a billion people celebrating across 186 nations.

Hayes currently resides in Seattle with his family, and has gone on to write multiple environmental books and create what he claims to be “the greenest commercial office building in the world,” the The Bullitt Center.  With the entire roof designed out of solar panels, Hayes said the building produces 50 percent more energy than it uses and captures rainwater to use for the building’s needs.

“We aren’t battling the rain; we are using it to our advantage,” Hayes said.

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The Bullitt Foundation building, designed by Hayes, has no electricity bills and produces more energy than it uses with it’s solar rooftop design. Photograph by Nic Lehoux

Hayes is President and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, a non-profit company that promotes environmental sustainability and awareness in the Pacific Northwest.

Attributing part of his success to Clark, Hayes encourages current penguins to take advantage of the opportunities a community college provides.

“The teachers and classes at Clark were some of the most influential in my life,” Hayes said.

Hayes is impressed with today’s generation of college students and their efforts to keep our planet green through interest in possible solutions like hybrid cars.

His message to Clark students is, “I hope everyone recognizes how lucky they are, and they work hard to maintain it, because they live in a very special part of the planet.”

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