10/18/2012 03:35 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Honoring an Old-School Warrior

This week a bipartisan group of leaders from industry, government, and civil society came together to memorialize an old-school gentleman who got things done: Russell E. Train, environmental visionary, public servant, author, and self-described "conservative conservationist."

Russ' long and illustrious government career speaks for itself: military service in WWII, U.S. Tax Court judge, Undersecretary of the Department of the Interior, first Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, forefather and then administrator of the EPA under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He was a founding father of American environmentalism and an architect of laws to protect our nation's most vital resources: clean air, clean water, healthy soil, unique wildlife. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush recognized Russ' contribution by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor. Yet Russ' greatest legacy may be something less tangible -- his steadfast belief that public service and the public good transcends politics.

Russ was old-school in the finest sense. He embodied the civility, integrity, and commitment to discourse and compromise that mark the best of our democracy. Whether meeting with heads of state or congressional leaders, captains of industry or fellow conservationists, Russ employed a seamless combination of charm, humor, and intelligence that worked its own magic. Unfailingly gracious, he spoke directly and clearly about what needed to be done to make America and the world a better place for people, and indeed for all life on earth.

Russ' commitment to service extended beyond government. Among other efforts, he founded the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation, presided over the Conservation Foundation, and served as President, Chairman and senior statesman of World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Until last month, Russ showed up every week at our offices at 24th and M, dressed in impeccable pinstripes that gave way to seersucker in Washington summers. He prowled the hallways, advising staff, writing editorials, making calls, and influencing policy, always with a keen sense of urgency to find common ground for the public good.

Civility remained his hallmark. Russ approached others as partners in solving complex problems, even if his starting point differed from theirs. In his most active policy days, he and his wife Aileen shared home-baked muffins with congressmen from both sides of the aisle before setting to work shaping our nation's most important environmental laws, from the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

Russ understood that bipartisanship was not an end in itself, but the necessary means to addressing real problems facing the American people. He was never shy about defending the basic principles that undergirded his life's work and the laws that he helped to enact.

In May 2010, just days before his 90th birthday, Russ wrote to the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate urging the rejection of a resolution to overturn the scientific finding that greenhouse gas pollutants endanger human health and welfare and prevent the EPA from regulating them under the Clean Air Act. If his eyesight was failing, his passion was not. His letter to the Senate was unequivocal: the Senate resolution was "driven not by science but by political considerations."

That politics might trump science was deeply offensive to Russ, who overcame similar opposition when, as President Nixon's EPA Administrator, he regulated airborne lead from gasoline because of evidence of its serious health impacts, particularly in children. As he reminded today's lawmakers, "the Clean Air Act was not written to protect politicians; it was written to protect the American people."

In spite of his frustrations in his later years with the deteriorating political discourse, Russ' fidelity to his core principles never wavered. As one former colleague remarked:

"one of the great privileges of being at WWF during Russ' later days was seeing him appear 'radicalized' by the changing environmental politics ... it made him seem younger, more alert and alive than people around him half his age, though I realize now he wasn't changing at all ... he kept his bearings perfectly ... and had the courage and credibility to speak up for a higher standard in public life and for a conservation ethic that should remain above politics or party."

As we continue our work, we can't help but miss Russ' gravelly voice, instructing us never to be conventional. To invent new things. To imagine a different future. But his greatest legacy continues to speak to us, in affirming the importance of human relationships in achieving all things of enduring value.

We will certainly miss Russell E. Train. Let's be sure we don't miss the opportunity to learn from his example.