There are counterweights to Twitter rants and civic discord; folks who breathe life into public service, the beauty of language, and the common good.
Bill Van Ness, who died in November and would have turned 80 on Jan. 20, was one. His character and values were an extension of the people and landscape of his Northwest home.
Bill’s fingerprints are everywhere, from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, to the University of Washington Medical School. His joy was laboring behind the scenes, crafting legislation and harmonizing differences. It required humility — and a Will Rogers-like understanding of human nature — to tame the prideful and advance the public good.
Bill enjoyed telling a Rogers-ish tale about his father and his father’s best friend. During the Great Depression, one ran as a Democrat, the other as a Republican, to oversee a county in Montana. Whoever won, hired the other as his deputy. They went back and forth after elections.
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Bill’s values flowed from his family and from the land. He was born in Wolf Point, Mont., and spent his formative years on the Olympic Peninsula, graduating from Chimacum High School. Bill understood rip rap, wood carving, salmon fishing, and running a backhoe as well as he understood the law. It was an expression of Northwest pragmatism, of getting meaningful things done as life’s acid test.
Consider the environmental impact statement, the centerpiece of NEPA. As the young special counsel to the U.S. Senate Interior Committee, Bill worked with a fellow staffer, Dan Dreyfus, to tailor language that required the federal government produce a detailed statement of a project’s environmental impacts, including alternative, less-harmful options. Today, NEPA is a template for states such as Washington, which adopted its own version of NEPA in 1971, as well as more than 100 governments around the world.
Fresh out of the UW law school in 1966, Bill was hired by U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson as special counsel to the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. One of his first tasks was helping craft a settlement to Alaska Native land claims, a generations’ long, seemingly intractable conflict, which appealed to Bill’s sense of justice. It was Bill who insisted on a deep-dive study that set in motion a series of hearings and events, culminating in the 1971 settlement agreement. Like NEPA, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act became a model for other countries addressing centuries of government crimes against indigenous people.
Van Ness left the Interior Committee and established his own law firm in 1977 and, in 1988, Bill and his wife, Pat, moved home. But Bill’s service portfolio continued to swell. He mentored young people, providing a calm, wise presence, emanating integrity.
He served as president of the grant-making Henry M. Jackson Foundation for 20 years and as a member of the board of the UW Medical School. When the medical school was embroiled in an over-billing scandal, the UW Medicine Board tapped Van Ness to lead a committee to troubleshoot the crisis and prevent further abuses. The committee produced a well-reasoned, searing report, reflecting Bill’s integrity, his intolerance for fluff, and his demand for tangible outcomes.
For those who knew him, Bill’s greatest legacy, in addition to his children and his grandchildren, was the generation of attorneys and those in public life inspired by his example.
If there is such a thing as a professional reconciler, it was Bill Van Ness, a navigator of egos in search of common ground. Were there only more Bill Van Nesses today.
Jerry Grinstein is the former CEO of Delta Airlines and served as chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson. Norm Dicks is the former U.S. Representative from Washington's 6th Congressional District. Peter Jackson is the former editorial page editor of the Everett Herald.