Storied desk finds a home in Science Hall

June 27, 2012

It started with a phone call: “Carrie Lee wants her garage back.”

And then the planets began to align.

The call was from Sherman Stock, a longtime friend and legal aide to the late U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. Carrie Lee is the senator’s widow, and the garage in question was occupied by Gaylord Nelson’s Senate desk.

Stock’s call had been made in May 2011 to Lewis Gilbert, then the Nelson Institute associate director. Lewis approached me and said, “Have I got a project for you!”

I called Sherman Stock, at first unsure who he or Carrie Lee were. I was also curious to learn why she wanted to repossess her garage and what it could possibly have to do with the Nelson Institute. 

Gaylord Nelson desk
Nelson Institute staff member Ann
Swenson and Carrie Lee and Jeffrey
Nelson, left to right, with the desk in
Carrie Lee’s garage, July 2011.

 

As it turned out, I actually did know about these two – in fact, I had a personal connection to them.

Growing up, I had heard about “Sherm” and Mrs. Nelson from both my mother, who had been Gaylord Nelson’s secretary from 1963 to 1967, and my grandfather, Gerald Flynn, who worked closely with Gaylord while serving in the Wisconsin State Senate from 1950-54 and the U.S. House of Representatives from 1959-61. Both regularly shared tales of Wisconsin’s transformative, bygone political era.

Now it was more than a project. It had become a personal mission.

Since Gaylord’s death in 2005, Carrie Lee had been storing his desk in her garage in Kensington, Md. She finally decided that it needed a better home, and she wanted to donate it to the Nelson Institute.

Nelson had used the desk for more than 40 years, both while in the U.S. Senate and later at the Wilderness Society. Important legislation had been drafted on that desk, including bills that established Earth Day, created and protected the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and banned the use of the insecticide DDT.

As luck would have it, I planned to be in Washington, D.C., on a family vacation last summer, so I made plans to meet Carrie Lee and see the desk. As I anticipated, the desk was magnificent, and Carrie Lee was charming, hospitable and full of wonderful stories.

The same was true of Jeffrey Nelson, her son, who was also present during my visit and worked with me to have the desk delivered to Science Hall. It arrived last November and is now the centerpiece of a historical display in the Nelson Institute director’s office.

Inspired by the Nelson family and their incredible generosity, I decided to invite them to the Nelson Institute to celebrate Earth Day 2012. It would be a gesture to thank them and provide an opportunity for our students to learn about Gaylord Nelson from the people who knew him best.

I also wanted the family to see the Nelson Institute (aside from Tia, Gaylord’s daughter and a member of the Nelson Institute Board of Visitors, none of the Nelsons had ever been to Science Hall) and the newly installed historical displays, including the desk, banners featuring several of Gaylord’s well-known quotes, and a series of posters that chronicle Gaylord’s life, beginning with his childhood in Clear Lake, Wis.

Earth Day 2012 dawned bright and beautiful with clear blue skies and a light breeze. The day could not have been more perfect.

Gaylord Nelson family and friends in Science Hall
Gaylord's desk is now displayed in the Nelson
Institute director’s office in Science Hall. His family
and former associates gathered at the institute on
April 22, the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day. Standing
from left to right: former legal aide Sherman Stock;
Nelson sons Jeffrey and Gaylord Jr. (“Happy”);
Ann Swenson; Nelson grandchildren Jason and
Kiva; and seated: daughter Tia and widow Carrie Lee.

The Nelson family in near entirety was in attendance: Carrie Lee; sons Gaylord Jr. (“Happy”) and Jeffrey; daughter Tia; and grandchildren Kiva and Jason. They were joined by nearly 70 faculty, staff and students from the Nelson Institute.  Three individuals in particular knew Gaylord well or had served on his staff: Jay Carlson (Nelson Institute Board of Visitors), there with his wife Lyn, and Fred Madison and Steve Born, both emeritus faculty.

Other special guests included Sherman (and wife Sally) Stock, Bill Christofferson (Gaylord’s biographer, author of The Man from Clear Lake), Sheila Cohen (author of Gaylord Nelson, Champion for our Earth), and Mark Weller (Wisconsin Public Television, producer of Gaylord Nelson: A Profile).

The gathering featured personal, poignant, funny and heartwarming stories about Gaylord, along with historic photographs and a 10-minute excerpt of the speech Nelson gave in Milwaukee on April 21, 1970, the eve of the very first Earth Day.

It was tremendously moving to hear Gaylord Nelson’s voice as we celebrated his legacy. It was magical to watch the audience engage with him in video. Spontaneous applause erupted at the end of the film.  Every person in the room was touched by history that day.

For more information about Gaylord Nelson and his legacy, please visit:

Ann Swenson is the Nelson Institute director's special projects manager.