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Denis Hayes helped launch the first Earth Day in April 1970 and turned it into a global festival in 1990. Hayes didn’t set out to be an environmentalist. He grew up in Camas, Washington, a small paper-mill town where the air stank from sulfur fumes. Not until his undergraduate days at Stanford in the ’60s did he become a rabble-rouser: he helped lead more than 1,000 students in a campus takeover of a weapons-related research lab.
The activist settled down and entered Harvard Law School with an eye to influencing public policy. Required to be an intern in a government office, Hayes got hired by Gaylord Nelson, then a liberal U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, to organize a series of teach-ins across the country to call attention to the environment. Hayes dropped out of Harvard and devoted his time to organizing rallies, street demonstrations, and trash cleanups, culminating with the first Earth Day, when 20 million people put on the biggest show of flower power the country had ever seen.
By the time he was 35, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head the Solar Energy Research Institute in Colorado, and clean power became his passion. Hayes finished his law degree at Stanford in 1985. On the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day, it was time to make it a global happening. In all, 200 million people paid homage to the planet. In 1993, Hayes began running the Bullitt Foundation, an endowment in Seattle that funds green projects in the Pacific Northwest.