Ex-EPA chief Ruckelshaus, who quit in Watergate’s ‘Saturday Night Massacre,’ dies at 87

William Ruckelshaus in 2009.
William Ruckelshaus in 2009.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press )

William Doyle 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 served as the first administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which confirmed his death in a statement Wednesday.

The lifelong Republican also served a stint as acting director of the FBI. But his moment of fame came in 1973, when he was a deputy attorney general and joined his boss, Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson, in resigning rather than carrying out Nixon’s unlawful order to fire 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.

“He was incorruptible,” longtime friend and Seattle philanthropist Martha Kongsgaard said Wednesday of Ruckelshaus. “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 U.S. coasts, marked by two stints at the EPA under Nixon and Ronald Reagan, a lost bid for U.S. Senate in 1968 and top positions at Weyerhaeuser Co. and Browning Ferris Industries.

Ruckelshaus spent much of his life focused on air and water pollution and other environmental issues. As a young Indiana state 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 to the scandal-plagued agency. His 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 reestablish 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.”

Former EPA chief Gina McCarthy called Ruckelshaus a “hero” whose public service is worthy of study.

“At a time when many people are questioning whether our government is irreparably broken, take a close look at the life and accomplishments of Bill Ruckleshaus,” McCarthy said in a statement Wednesday. “He showed that even in the worst of times, people with conviction can stand up, speak up and — in time — restore people’s faith in government.”

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 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 Fort Lewis. He graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

He met his wife on a blind date set up by her Sunday school teacher. It took place at his aunt and uncle’s house in Indianapolis, where they both grew up.

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. Chris Gregoire described him as “big as the great outdoors.”

Ruckelshaus served on the boards of directors of several major corporations. He was senior vice president for law and corporate affairs at Weyerhaeuser before returning to the EPA for his second term. At the time, some environmentalists criticized his close ties to some of the industries that the EPA regulated.


He was chief executive of Browning-Ferris from 1988 to 1995 and served as chairman from 1995 to 1999. He was also a strategic director of Madrona Venture Group in Seattle, an early backer of companies such as Amazon.