In Memoriam Blake Early (1945-2010)

He disappeared in the dead of winter:

The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,

And snow disfigured the public statues;

The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.

-- In Memory of W.B. Yeats (1939), W.H. Auden


I lost a friend this weekend.

And the country lost a tireless, unrivaled advocate for public health and the environment.

A. Blakeman “Blake” Early died this weekend at the tragic age of 64, after fighting cancer for six years with the same tenacity that he had fought for strong environmental and health protections for nearly four decades.

Blake began his career as a government attorney, but soon moved into the developing field of environmental advocacy at the dawn of the environmental movement in the mid-1970’s.

He worked for the Sierra Club in Washington for about 15 years, promoting a stronger Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Superfund law. He also served as an exemplary clean air advocate with the American Lung Association, where he worked from 1994 until his retirement in early 2009.

Blake’s life long achievements promoting and preserving strong health and environmental protections are too numerous to catalogue.  As a fellow clean air advocate lucky enough to know Blake for the past decade, I can attest that his daily labor created the threads that form the fabric for our modern Clean Air Act.

Blake fought to get a rigorous Clean Air Act passed in Congress in 1990; persevered to get the Environmental Protection Agency – sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly – to uphold that law; and helped beat back innumerable attempts to weaken that law in Congress over the past 20 years.

Blake had an uncanny ability to gauge the real world political risks of bills and appropriations riders that members of Congress would undertake to weaken the Clean Air Act.  Some were real threats that would galvanize clean air advocates behind Blake’s leadership, and far more often than not he helped defeat these efforts.

Other Congressional attacks were mere will-o’-the-wisps that Blake understood to represent the dyspeptic constitution of a particular Congressman and some frustrated constituency.  Even these got the Maalox treatment from Blake, who was wise and experienced enough never to underestimate the ability of Congress to wreak damage to the public good with Capitol Hill’s legislative shenanigans.

Blake would wield one of his favorite examples with rhetorical flourish in response to some newbie advocate’s protestation that Congress could not possibly be that reckless.  This example was a 1995 bill introduced by Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX) that in one ruthlessly simple, tidily irresponsible sentence repealed the entire Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.  A law that Blake had worked years to help deliver, with 89 Senate votes, 401 House votes and the signature of a Republican President.

A biography can register occupations and dates, but it cannot capture the character of a man like Blake and the mark that he left on this Earth.

Blake was a mentor and role model to a generation of public health and environmental advocates.  His strategic thinking, his homespun persuasiveness and tireless commitment got the job done again and again; but they also imparted hard-earned lessons by osmosis to those of us fortunate enough to walk by his side.

Blake earned a well-deserved reputation as someone that all sides of the debate could trust, someone who could broker solutions that others found elusive.  He was the environmental movement’s gray beard long before he himself had a gray beard, commanding respect from his presence and openness to other perspectives.

Blake was unfailingly polite, even described by some as courtly.  He was a gentleman in the tradition of Hollywood’s Golden Age, updated by the 1960’s student movement’s quest for justice and Earth Day’s green ethic.

But Blake also had a wry sense of humor that reflected a keen intellect and an Everyman’s awareness of the absurdities of Washington politics and policy.  He could crack up a gathering of grim-faced environmentalists into shards of laughter with a wickedly funny comment under his breath, funnier still to the unfamiliar who just saw the courtliness but cherished by those of us that knew the jester.

Blake was a force of nature. His composed exterior somehow managed to contain a restless mix of passion and determination and tenacity that he brought to all his advocacy.

Even after he retired last year, while fighting his final battle with cancer, Blake would call or email me to discuss biofuels policy, of all things. He even dragged himself to a Senate staff briefing on biofuels because he just couldn’t keep away from trying to make the world a better place. Even a world without him.

While fighting that bastard disease, Blake would seek refuge by the sea, in the house he so loved on Chincoteague.  Cured by the salty air and a glass of his favorite whiskey, my friend weathered his storms like the rugged shoreline.

There is no good time for a man as honorable, passionate and selfless as Blake to be taken from us.  But through teary-eyed reflection these past few days, I think that Blake would have appreciated the events that coincided with the day he left this Earth.

The Washington metro area that Blake called home was struck by a blizzard that shut down D.C. and its environs. Blake was an avid hockey player at one time, and I can almost see him from his bed imagining outside his window the slick chill of some inviting rink.

Blake was in awe of Nature and dedicated his life to sustaining its wonders for this and future generations.

He also loved a good joke, and surely would have chortled at Nature bringing to its knees a Washington power structure that didn’t give a second thought to despoiling the environment through laws and policies and subsidies favoring polluters. 

Sunday also ushered in the New Orleans Saints to victory in Superbowl XLIV. Blake followed hockey more than football, but by God he cared about the down-and-out and Hurricane Katrina broke his heart.  I remember working with Blake in the aftermath of Katrina to ensure that special interests and some members of Congress would not compound the hurricane’s tragedy by waiving health and environmental safeguards. I know that Blake would have celebrated the Saints’ victory and the euphoria of this great American city.

News of Blake’s passing has been met with an outpouring of sadness and admiration, from fellow advocates, EPA employees and former and current Congressional staff fortunate enough to know him. Here are just some of those tributes I have received:

  • “I consider him one of my earliest inspirations in D.C. He was such an ally and had fire in the belly and warmth of the soul – a rare combination that I immediately appreciated when I was scared and wide-eyed working” on Capitol Hill;
  • “What a great guy and tenacious fighter for all things good and right”; and
  • “I really loved that guy.”

I loved that guy too.  And I know there are so many others that were touched by his goodness and compassion, instructed and inspired by his example, cheered by his humor and spirit.

So I want to extend two invitations.  First, if you support the health and environmental goals that Blake worked on so fervently, consider making a contribution to the American Lung Association's National Headquarters so this fine organization can continue Blake’s life long mission to protect clean air and public health.

And second, I invite Blake’s friends, colleagues and admirers to comment here with your thoughts, your favorite anecdote, something to capture the memory of this gentle giant.  Blake’s loving wife and two daughters deserve to know how much he meant to the rest of us, how much he contributed to the noble causes to which he dedicated his life.

Earth, receive an honored guest:

Blake Early is laid to rest.