Environmental health ‘pioneer’ had distinguished career

Larry J. Gordon (Courtesy of the Gordon Family)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Larry J. Gordon was described by family and friends as a “pioneer” and a “legend” in the field of environmental health.

Gordon wrote the legislation creating the state Environmental Improvement Agency, now called the New Mexico Environment Department. He also helped create the state Scientific Laboratory system, and Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department, where he served twice as director.

Gordon, who died April 29 in Albuquerque at age 95, served in the administrations of four New Mexico governors, as well as under several Albuquerque mayors.

Colleagues said he was an “inspirational leader” and a mentor, in addition to being a scholar who wrote more than 240 academic papers that were published in scientific and peer-reviewed journals.

His son, Gary Gordon of Santa Fe, called his father “a thoughtful and kind family man” and an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed fishing, quail hunting and hiking.

Gordon served as cabinet secretary for Health and Environment under former Gov. Garrey Carruthers.

“He probably represented the least political person that I appointed to the cabinet,” Carruthers said. “He was chosen because of his expertise. He was very professional and contributed greatly. I was a great admirer of his.”

David Campbell, CEO of Mesa del Sol, was an assistant to former Albuquerque Mayor Harry Kinney when he got to know Gordon, who led city environmental health efforts.

“He was a thoughtful, considerate guy, and professionally I considered him the pioneer of New Mexico’s environmental protection movement,” Campbell said. “He really was one of the first people to recognize the government’s important role in protecting the environment, and under his leadership we started programs, like vehicle emission monitoring. He was very involved in keeping air and water clean, but doing it in a way that put the government front-and-center in making those protections happen.”

For a while, Gordon was a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service, “chasing radiation in the desert,” said his son Gary.

“He would go to Nevada when they were still doing above-ground testing back in the day, and he would lead teams figuring out which way the radiation was blowing, and, if necessary, evacuating communities or ranches. Because of that experience he was sympathetic and lent his time and energy to the Tularosa Basin Downwinders,” whom he believed were affected similarly by the Trinity Site explosions.

Gordon retired as an adjunct professor of public administration and political science at the University of New Mexico, where he also held appointments as visiting professor of public administration and senior fellow at the Institute for Public Policy.

A visionary, Gordon talked about climate change, global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps long before it became a mainstream topic of debate, said his son.

“My father was learning and talking about it and later joked that all he got in response was crickets. He’d write papers and give speeches, and people – even those in his circle – just didn’t get it. I know it was frustrating for him,” he said.

UNM political science professor Deborah McFarlane said she trained in public health and was familiar with Gordon’s work long before she met him.

“I’d gone to graduate school at the University of Michigan and read his stuff. In public health, he was very well known all over the country,” she said. “I’m still teaching some of his articles in my classes.”

McFarlane said she taught Gordon how to use computers. “He must have been in his 60s at the time and said he was going to die soon so he didn’t need to learn about them. He said, ‘I used to have five secretaries,’ and I said, ‘Well, you don’t here, and the ones we have aren’t very good.’ So he ended up with three computers.”

Fresh out of college, Russell Roades began working for Gordon at the city’s Environmental Health Department. Gordon, he said, “was instrumental in helping me get into graduate school at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.”

Gordon convinced Roades to return to the department after completing his graduate work. “That was kind of his management style. He’d do whatever he could to help people advance professionally, hoping he’d get them back to run his programs,” Roades said. “He focused on goal attainment and professional accountability while providing support and backing to his team. He truly was an inspirational leader and he created an energized (work) culture.”

Bruce Etchison of Farmington never met Gordon, but the two became friends through correspondences. Etchison had worked for the U.S. Public Health Service for 30 years and knew of Gordon by name and reputation.

“He was sort of a father of environmental health,” he said.

Etchison volunteered to help Gordon edit his memoir, “Environmental Health and Protection Adventures,” which was published in 2020. The book includes stories detailing how Gordon dealt with issues related to Agent Orange, DDT, uranium mines, paper mills, atomic weapons fallout measurements and tobacco abatement.

“It also talks about his childhood with his pioneer parents, who were school teachers and administrators in these little communities east of Gallup that don’t even exist anymore, and how they dug their own wells and built their own classrooms and homes,” Etchison said.

Gordon was born near Tipton, Oklahoma, and was 2 when the family moved to New Mexico. As a young man he worked as a ranch hand and later a range manager for the Bureau of Land Management.

With three semesters of college behind him, he joined the U.S. Navy during World War II and served as a hospital corpsman at Bethesda Naval Hospital. After being discharged, he attended UNM and earned a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s degree in biology. In 2007, he was awarded UNM’s honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

It was during his student years at the university that he met Nedra Callendar. They married in 1950 and had three children. The couple was married for 67 years when she died in 2017.

Gordon served as president of the American Public Health Association and is a recipient of the APHA’s highest honor, the Sedgwick Award for public health contributions. In addition, he was a recipient of the New Mexico Governor’s Distinguished Public Service Award, UNM’s Zimmerman Award, the University of Michigan’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, and was named an honorary member of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for the Promotion of Health.

Larry Gordon is survived by his sons, Gary Gordon and wife, Terri Giron, of Santa Fe; Kent Gordon and wife, Eli, of Santa Clara, California; daughter Debbie Dunlap of Albuquerque; four granddaughters, one grandson, one great-granddaughter, one great-grandson, and one great-great grandson.

His remains have been cremated and will be interred with Nedra’s in a single grave. A public service will not be held.

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