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“Society is like a stew. If you don’t keep it stirred up, you get a lot of scum on top.”

–Edward Abbey

Remembering Stewart Udall

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Udall_-_1960s-229×300.gif” alt=”” width=”229″ height=”300″ />By Jack Loeffler

© 2010

Stewart Udall lived for ninety years and forty-eight days, and passed from this world during the first few minutes of Spring, 2010. He was a prominent American regarded by many as the greatest of our Secretaries of the Interior, a powerful voice for conservation, a staunch advocate for cultural diversity and preservation.

I first met Stewart during his final months as Secretary of the Interior. His wife, Lee introduced us in their home in MacLean, Virginia. He was clad in shorts, no shirt, no shoes. He was balanced on his knees atop a kitchen counter trying to screw a hinge back onto a cupboard door. I went over and held the door while he replaced the hinge. Only then did we shake hands and look each other in the eye.

“Any friend of Lee’s is welcome,” he said. Lee, as director for The Center for Arts of Indian America, was then my employer as we worked together on a Navajo history project. Subsequently, I was introduced to the six Udall offspring: Tom, Scott, Lynn, Lori, Denis and Jay. Gradually, the Udall family became very dear to me.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to record Stewart on many occasions. He was born into a Mormon family in St. Johns, Arizona just eight years after both New Mexico and Arizona were admitted to statehood. He was nine years old when the Great Depression swept across America like a cloud of despair. However, Stewart contended that rural America fared better than urban America.

“St. Johns was a farming town, a ranching town. The main economic impacts came from raising cattle…St Johns had irrigation farming. My father said to me, ‘Son, irrigation is a science.’ Our community had what in New Mexico is called an acequia system, and you had your turn for the water, and you had a water-master, and he’d give you a little slip of paper that said, ‘You take the water at 2:30 in the morning.’ Well, if you were a kid ten, eleven or twelve, and you were the oldest boy, you were the one that went to the head-gate… and you took down the head-gate and watered the garden you’d helped plant. The children had the responsibility to take care of the garden, to milk the cows. You took care of the pigs and the chickens. You were providing a substantial amount of the foodstuffs from either your animals, your garden, or when you slaughtered pigs and cattle.”

The Udalls lived and worked through the Depression in relative ease. Stewart’s father became a judge in 1931 and was paid $4000 a year. He remained in St. Johns until he won a seat on the Arizona Supreme Court in 1946. By then Stewart had survived combat during World War II serving in the Army Air Corps as a waist-gunner and nose-gunner on bomber raids against oil refineries in Ploesti and Eastern Germany.

“If you were attacked by German fighter planes it was usually in a pack. The mission where [our plane was] providing some leadership was against the Hermann Goering Tank Works in Linz, Austria on the Danube River. We were hit by a pack of fighters very abruptly. I had switched out of the waist- to the nose-gunner’s position. The nose-gunner didn’t fly. The volunteer who took my position [as waist-gunner] was killed. A twenty-millimeter fighter bullet hit him right in the face. Our plane was riddled. So that was a close call.”

After the War, Stewart sought a law degree at the University of Arizona and courted Erma Lee Webb, a young beauty from Mesa, Arizona who was two years younger than he.

“I had sixteen or seventeen hundred dollars at the end of the war… I bought my first car in 1947. It was a little Ford. I think it cost twelve hundred dollars. I had to buy a car so my wife [Lee] and I could go on our honeymoon.

“I was an idealist. I wrote something called ‘Testament at the Completion of the War’… I belonged to the NAACP. I got involved in veterans’ organizations. I got involved in politics. I helped manage my father’s campaign when he ran for office to win a seat on the Arizona Supreme Court. Then later when I got ambitious and ran for Congress, I was standing on his shoulders… So I got into politics in 1954. I was, what, thirty-four.

“I later stuck my neck out for Senator John F. Kennedy, and he invited me to be on the cabinet. So all that happened from the end of the war in 1945 till 1960. I moved up and have had a very exciting life.”

The 1950s and1960s were a critical time within what Stewart regarded as the ever-evolving political/cultural continuum. Environmental concerns emerged as America’s post-war golden age began to wane, and serious thinkers challenged the notion of growth for the sake of growth, the fundament of the dominant economic paradigm. Stewart’s visionary book, “The Quiet Crisis” was published in 1963 with deft literary guidance quietly provided by Wallace Stegner and Alvin Josephy. Stewart remained devoted to the memory of Rachel Carson, author of “The Silent Spring” to the end of his life.


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1983, he reflected on the nature of the post-war political continuum. “I think that we made a series of spectacular miscalculations back in the 1950s and 1960s. I think that we felt that there was no energy problem. The energy problems had been solved by science and technology. Optimism about atomic power was at the center of things in that period. We had also made some very bad misjudgments about how much oil and gas we had in this country. We almost treated them as if they weren’t finite, nonrenewable resources, but that we would go on and find more and more, and that we had another hundred years, two hundred years of oil. The whole atmosphere of the 1950s, 1960s was not to worry, there were no problems, we were so clever, we were masters of science and technology that shortages had been eliminated for all time.”

Stewart Udall’s perspective had been greatly shaped by his rural upbringing and by the “Teddy Roosevelt School” of conservation. He loved the wild country of his southwestern homeland, and had enormous respect for both the myriad Native American cultures that survived the nineteenth century “Indian wars”, and for Hispano culture that evolved from Spanish colonization in the northern Río Grande. During his tenure as Secretary of the Interior, the Institute for American Indian Arts flourished in Santa Fe, and hundreds of young Indians from every corner of America passed through its curriculum, many gaining great prominence. In the 1980s, he wrote “To the Inland Empire: Coronado and Our Spanish Legacy” that celebrated the extraordinary will of those sixteenth century Spanish explorers and colonists who established indigeneity on southwestern soil twenty generations ago. As is befitting a man of his stature, Stewart’s own point of view ever evolved, never crystallized.

For many years, a glass-enclosed coffee table adorned the Udall living room, a coffee table filled with the pens of congressmen and President Lyndon B. Johnson that had been used to sign the Wilderness Bill in September 1964. Stewart had long championed the passage of this bill that had its genesis in Albuquerque in the 1920s some years after the great conservationist Aldo Leopold had arrived in the Southwest, and who was responsible for the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico becoming America’s first protected wilderness area in 1924. Stewart recalled that “Clinton Anderson was an insurance man in the 1920s and he and Aldo Leopold had become friends. Leopold convinced Anderson that the Wilderness Bill was a good idea and there should be a law protecting wilderness. Anderson became a senator in 1948, and became chairman of the committee [on Interior and Insular Affairs] in 1960 right after Kennedy was elected.

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He went to the White House and told Kennedy to sponsor a wilderness bill, and he handed him a copy of his bill, Senate Bill 5, and he said, ‘Call for the enactment of a wilderness bill.’ Kennedy agreed, and put it in his conservation message. That became the wilderness bill that became law in 1964.” The passage of this bill occurred on the watch of Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.

In the early 1970s, Stewart and Lee Udall purchased ten acres on the edge of Santa Fe. It was there that they built their home. Stewart founded the Navajo Uranium Miners and Widows Fund and was intent on gaining recompense for families of Navajo uranium miners who had suffered or perished from lung cancer and other illnesses. Money, as ever, was in short supply. The Udalls were never a wealthy family, but were ever fired by a level of determination that can only be inspired by the practice of idealism.

In 1980, a benefit was held at the Soleri amphitheater at the Santa Fe Indian School on Cerrillos Road that featured Pete Seeger, Edward Abbey and Eliza Gilkyson. It was a total success and raised enough funding for Stewart to proceed on behalf of the Native uranium miners. Stewart and members of his family continued to provide legal representation the miners and their families until after the turn of the millennium.

On December 23, 2001, Stewart was widowered when Lee, his wife of over half a century, was carried away by cancer. During their many years in Santa Fe, Stewart and Lee hosted beautiful commemorative events at their home, became actively engaged in local conservation and cultural issues, and attended many concerts performed by Santa Fe Pro Musica. The last concert they attended together featured clarinet works by Mozart performed in the Lensic Performing Arts Center in October, 2001, less than three months before Lee’s death. Stewart and Lee were given recordings of that concert that were played almost daily in the Udall home for the rest of Stewart’s life.

The legacy of Stewart Udall is of incalculable magnitude. Future historians will find his mark woven throughout the diverse and complex mosaic of America’s cultural continuum. His was a questing intellect tempered by compassion. He loved history and poetry. He loved great music. He loved the wild country and its indigenous peoples. He continued to write into his ninetieth year, and his mind remained keen and facile.

Stewart Udall comprehended the potential for presumptuousness that attends privilege. He well understood the plight of Native Americans and felt great empathy for them, recognizing that their systems of values are spiritually rich and contain enormous insight. “The Native peoples in 1961 were not only down, they were out, in a sense, because the policy under President Truman had been to re-locate. Get them off these miserable reservations. The policy under the Eisenhower administration was termination, that the whole Indian reservation system was a mistake.

“It wasn’t a mistake. It wasn’t made with any great insight, but the idea of letting them have part of the land that they had had– their lives, their culture, their religion were attached to the land. Their land was the essence of their life. One of the Alaskan native leaders made a statement many years ago that became the title of a book—‘Take my land– take my life.’”

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