William Ruckelshaus, Madrona director, former EPA leader and key Watergate figure, dies at 87

William Ruckelshaus. (Madrona Venture Group Photo)

William Ruckelshaus, a fixture in the Seattle business community with a storied history of civil service, died Wednesday at his home in Seattle. He was 87.

Long before his most recent role advising startups, Ruckelshaus famously defied President Richard Nixon as deputy attorney general during the “Saturday Night Massacre” and the ongoing the Watergate scandal in 1973.

Ruckelshaus also served as the first leader of the Environmental Protection Agency and was a longtime conservationist.

“Bill Ruckelshaus devoted his life to public service,” said Tom Alberg, Madrona managing director, in a statement. “With his death, our country lost a hero and protector of American democracy.”

Ruckelshaus became the EPA’s first administrator when the agency was founded in 1970. He went on to serve as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and then Deputy Attorney General of the U.S., where he landed in Nixon’s crosshairs.

Mired in the Watergate scandal, Nixon ordered his top Justice Department officials to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor appointed to the case. Nixon wanted Cox removed to avoid complying with a subpoena for incriminating tape recordings. Ruckelshaus refused the order and resigned from his post, along with a colleague. The firings and resignations were dubbed by the media “The Saturday Night Massacre.” They set off a barrage of calls for Nixon’s resignation, which he ultimately complied with in 1974.

“When the Presidency was in crisis 47 years ago, Ruckelshaus resigned as Deputy Attorney General rather than carry out the order of the President of the United States to fire the Special Prosecutor,” Alberg said. “It is through the character and courage of people like Ruckelshaus that our county will survive.”

Ruckelshaus moved to Seattle in 1976 to become the vice president of the lumber giant Weyerhaeuser. In 1983 President Ronald Reagan asked Ruckelshaus to return to the helm of the beleaguered EPA. He is credited with restoring confidence in the agency and returning it to its mission, according to The New York Times.

In 2015, Ruckelshaus was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his service to the country.

Following his second tenure at the EPA, Ruckelshaus joined the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie. He went on to co-found Madrona, a major venture capital firm in the Seattle region, where he continued to work for 25 years. In 2004, he became chair of the University of Washington and Washington State University’s The William D. Ruckelshaus Center.

“It is appropriate that Bill would leave us at Thanksgiving, because few people have ever lived a life that provided us with more for which to be thankful,” the center director and chair of board wrote in a letter. “For the nation and the world, there was Bill’s character and moral example, taking a stand for the rule of law in the brightest of spotlights and highest of stakes, even when it required him to say ‘no’ to powerful people, and cost him his job.

“There was also his leadership and resourcefulness in establishing a new federal agency charged with protecting the nation’s health and natural environment,” they wrote. “His performance in that role is still studied as a textbook case for how to establish an effective organization (and later, for how to return to a struggling organization and ‘right the ship’).”

Ruckelshaus served on the boards of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, Weyerhaeuser Company, Nordstrom, Isilon, Cummins Engine Company, Solutia, Pharmacia Corporation, and Monsanto. His varied positions reflect a career that sought to balance business interests and environmentalism.

“I am so saddened by Bill’s loss, but so thankful to have known him and for all he has done for our country and region,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement. “My thoughts and prayers are with his remarkable family in this difficult time. Throughout Bill’s entire career, he has conducted himself with integrity and intelligence, and he always sought to do what was right, even when it required immense sacrifice.”

Ruckelshaus is survived by his wife of 57 years, Jill, and their family.

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