GAYLORD ANTON NELSON was born in Clear Lake, Wisconsin and graduated from San Jose State College in California in 1939 and from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1942. He served in the Pacific Theater in World War II, achieving the rank of First Lieutenant. Having come from a family of Progressives, he sought a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly under the Republican banner after the war ended. He lost the election, but won three terms in the Wisconsin State Senate after changing his affiliation to the Democratic Party. Although he made a losing bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954, he won an upset victory over incumbent Governor Vernon Thomson in 1958, becoming the first Democratic governor of Wisconsin since the Franklin Roosevelt landslide of 1932. He ran successfully for reelection two years later. During his two terms as governor, Nelson reorganized state government, combining the responsibilities for industry, agriculture, and community expansion in one Department of Economic Development, and creating the Department of Administration to have responsibility for personnel, purchasing, engineering, financing, and management analysis. He also appointed a state commission to study the problems of aging. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962 and reelected in 1968 and 1974. As governor, Nelson had developed a national reputation as a conservationist, advocating the state’s Outdoor Recreation Act, which raised funds through cigarette taxes for environmental planning, land acquisition, and efforts to preserve scenic integrity along state highways. He continued his environmental advocacy in the Senate, becoming the founder of Earth Day. After leaving the Senate, he served as Counselor to the Wilderness Society, and in 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton for his commitment to, and activism on behalf of, the environment.
Sobel, Robert, and John Raimo, eds. Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, Vol. 4. Westport, CT: Meckler Books, 1978. 4 vols.
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. J. New York: James T. White & Company.