Earth Day Turns 50

Denis Hayes: Known for leading the first Earth Day and heading the Bullitt Foundation

Denis Hayes is best known for organizing the first Earth Day, which is now recognized in 192 countries and is considered the world’s largest observed secular holiday. Denis has headed Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation since 1992. Photo courtesy the Bullitt Foundation.

As his teenaged years unfolded into adulthood, Denis spent two years at Clark Community College before deciding to hitchhike around the world. A feverish bug for adventure and world travel had fully settled in.

After failing to get a job on a ‘round-the-world cargo ship, Denis managed to secure a $99 passage on a vessel headed to Hawaii. He lived the carefree life of a Waikiki surfer for a while and worked as a disc jockey at KNDI radio station in Honolulu.

Eventually, Denis managed to get himself to Japan, where his ‘round-the-world adventure continued. With savings amassed over the summer, Denis, at age 20, began a hitchhiking odyssey that took him all over the world. He has visited over 140 countries in his lifetime.

Denis traversed places that today would be unthinkable for their instability and threat to Americans. But in the mid-1960s, it was possible to travel just about anywhere in the world, including countries behind the Iron Curtain. Denis spent time in Eastern Europe, even train-hopping as far as Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and hitchhiked through the Middle East.

He then made his way down the West Coast of Africa. “I wanted to experience all the different parts of the world,” exclaims Denis, “and I must honestly confess that most of what I found in developing nations was quite depressing.”

But it was in Southwest Africa, a place that is now called Namibia, that Denis experienced a second pivotal, life-changing experience. Indeed, this moment might be defined as a kind of crucible that forged the Denis Hayes we now know, giving him clarity of purpose for how he would spend the rest of his life.

There is a certain timeless beauty to the details of this story that could belong to the mystics and sages of any age. He was out in the middle of the desert and alone. The night sky was clear and encrusted with stars, brilliantly illuminating everything. Denis was very hungry and as darkness set in, so did a deep chill. At a precise moment in Denis’ memory, a wave of something deep and profound passed through his body. He believes he was experiencing an epiphany—a realization that there must be a way to look for and identify certain organizing principles that explain the world.

“I began to wonder what it would be like if we began to bind ourselves to the principles of ecology,” reflects Denis. He stayed up all night, alive with a buzzing energy and awareness more powerful than his hunger or cold. As the sun rose in the eastern sky, Denis quite simply declares, “I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

Remarkably, he applied to only one university, Stanford, and was accepted. He was drawn there by influential academics connected to the university at that time: the eminent biologist and professor of population studies Paul Ehrlich and Don Kennedy, who later became president of Stanford.

When he entered Stanford, Denis was convinced he was coming back to make a real and meaningful impact. He became deeply politically active. He was elected student body president and was involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements.