I was saddened to learn yesterday of the death of retired Congressman Gerry E. Studds, who served his country and his Congressional district for 24 years with distinction. Gerry had been mentioned in the news recently in connection with the Mark Foley scandal, because he was censured in 1983 for having had sex with a male page in 1973. Due to the notoriety of Gerry’s scandal, he became the first member of Congress to openly acknowledge that he was gay.
However, though that may be how he is best remembered, it is only a minor footnote to the substance of Gerry’s career. His effectiveness as an advocate for his district was demonstrated by the fact that, even after his admission and his censure, which might have destroyed the career of a lesser politician, he won re-election six more times.
In particular, Gerry was a tireless defender of the environment. He worked diligently for legislation to conserve the fragile coastal lands of Massachusetts and the offshore marine ecosystem on which the New England fishing industry depends. He helped enact Federal jurisdiction over fishing within a 300-mile coastal zone, and was a driving force behind the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the establishment of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
, and a program to restore the population of migratory striped bass along the East Coast. Gerry later quipped to Congressman William Delahunt, who took over his seat, that his success in restoring the striped bass population did not owe as much to his legislative victories as to his sheer ineptitude at catching them.
Gerry’s quick, dry wit helped him forge friendships and extend his influence and effectiveness across the usual political divides. After one debate, the conservative Republican firebrand with an outrageous bouffant hairdo, Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, told him, “I wish I had your mind.” To which the balding Studds replied, without missing a beat, “And I wish I had your hair.” After Gerry’s retirement, conservative Republican Don Young of Alaska saw to it that the Stellwagen sanctuary was renamed for him.
Gerry was a UU, and as both a UU and an environmentalist I am very proud to have served in his office as a summer intern when I was in college during the bicentennial year of 1976. (Gerry's professional conduct was so professional, and his private life so private, that when we interns speculated about his private life we assumed there might be something going on with Patricia Schroeder of Colorado -- but certainly never with any of us.) I helped research energy, land, and marine conservation issues, and with the other college kids in the office, I drafted answers to a mountain of constituent mail. Gerry’s wit shone through in his standing instructions on how to answer letters from crackpot constituents whose (often extreme or ill-informed) views he did not share, but whom he did not want to offend. All such correspondence was answered, formally in writing, on official House of Representatives stationery with Gerry’s signature under a terse one-sentence reply:
“You may be right.”