Remembering Arlie Schardt
by Jane Leavy
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in his name to Friends of the Earth.
Arlie W. Schardt, a pioneering voice for the environment and witness to some of the most seminal events in American history as a Time magazine correspondent traveling with Martin Luther King while covering the civil rights movement, died at home in Washington on May 26. He was 87 years old. The cause of death was prostate cancer which he had fought to a draw for nearly thirty years.
Throughout his peripatetic 50-year career, Schardt reported on and acted on behalf of social justice. In 1988, he served as national spokesman for then Senator Al Gore’s presidential campaign. “Through his remarkably diverse career, Arlie Schardt lived a life of purpose and impact,” said the former Vice President. “He was a champion for civil rights and an early pioneer of the environmental movement. I valued greatly his commitment to public service and will always be grateful for the invaluable roles he played on my Presidential campaign.”
Jon Coifman, who worked for him at the Environmental Media Services, said, “he was an almost-Olympic swimmer whose unsuccessful tryout as a placekicker with the LA Rams led to a job in their PR department, which led to a job at the Madmen-era Sports Illustrated, which led to seven years covering the height of the civil rights era at Time. From there to the ACLU to impeach Nixon; to Environmental Defense Fund to save the planet; to Newsweek to write; to the trenches as press secretary for Al Gore ’88. He’d been everywhere, done everything, met everyone.”
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1954, where he was sports editor of the Daily Cardinal, Schardt competed in the 1956 U.S. Olympic water polo trials in Los Angeles as a member of an Army all-star team. While on the west coast, he tried acting appearing in a couple of episodes of “Father Knows Best” as Betty’s boyfriend.
His try out as a field-goal kicker for the Los Angeles Rams was arranged by family friend back in Wisconsin Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch — then playing for the Rams. Despite having no football experience and his diminutive physique, Schardt claimed he could make 35-yard field goals in perpetuity. He came by his athleticism honestly. His father, Arlie Schardt Sr., won a gold medal at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp for the 3,000-meter run.
He didn’t make the team but was hired by future NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, then the team’s public relations man who helped steer him toward a career in sports promotion and sportswriting.
After two years as Sports Information Director at Bucknell University, Schardt landed his dream job as a reporter for Sports Illustrated, where he covered the Rome Olympics, environmental issues, and collegiate swimming, a passion for which he had received his college letter. (He once swam the length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon about which he said only, “it was cold.”)
In his 1962 cover story on the aging Olympic distance swimmer Iain Murray Rose, a gold-medalist at the 1956 and 1960 games, Schardt described his idiosyncratic diet of “Russian sunflower seeds, Egyptian halvah, North China millet, South China unpolished rice, and his mother’s home-made seaweed jelly,” concluding, “he stands out among younger swimmers like a Rolls-Royce in a traffic jam.”
Inspired by the speeches of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr., he lobbied successfully for a job with Time magazine. After a stint in Chicago, he was transferred to the Atlanta Bureau where he covered landmark events in the civil rights movement. He was in Selma, Alabama and walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, with King and John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, witnessing the beating sustained by the future congressman.
A week later, he watched President Lyndon Johnson’s speech to a joint session of Congress calling for comprehensive voting rights legislation with King on a fuzzy black-and-white TV in the home of a black dentist who was hosting the civil rights leader. Schardt recalled: “When LBJ closed it by saying ‘we shall overcome,’ my God. There were tears coming down King’s face.”
But the civil rights movement was fracturing. Nonviolence was falling out of favor. When Stokely Carmichael purged Lewis from leadership of SNCC in May 1966, Lewis sought refuge and solace on Schardt’s front porch.
A month later, Schardt covered James Meredith’s “Walk Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. On the second day of his solitary walk, having passed Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, and 30 miles across the state line, Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi four years earlier, was shot three times. Civil rights leaders including King and Stokely Carmichael rushed to take up the unfinished march. The schism in the movement became irrevocable when Carmichael invoked “black power” in a June 16 speech in Greenwood, MS on the night of June 16. Schardt was directed to address Carmichael as “Sir” from then on.
White reporters were not immune to the threat of violence. One night while interviewing a sharecropper on his front porch in a small Mississippi town in Neshoba County, a squad car dispatched by deputy sheriff Cecil Price — later convicted of the murders of freedom riders Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner — hauled Schardt away. He was saved only when the squad car got stuck in traffic caused by marchers. Seeing Schardt in the backseat of the squad car, John M. Doar, the chief federal presence in the South during the civil rights era, called out, “Hey, Arlie, what are you doing in there?” Then he told the police: “You boys don’t really want to be doing this, do you?”
In 1968, Schardt and his colleague Roger Williams spent six weeks reporting on the third-party presidential campaign of Alabama governor George Wallace for Time’s cover story on the segregationist’s ascent. In the style of newsweeklies, correspondents sent “files” of reporting then rewritten in New York. Schardt was disappointed that the governor’s penchant for spitting during speeches, which he had noticed while standing backstage, was omitted from the story.
Schardt told an interviewer on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks that it was the highlight of his life “to see people, young people, older people, white and black, risking their lives for a cause, a belief, for a chance to redeem the American dream.”
Though he would continue to write throughout his career, frequently and fervently, for The Nation, New Republic, Commonweal, The New York Times, Life magazine, for Hollywood — selling an unproduced screenplay about Mormon leader Joseph Smith which was to star Dana Andrews — and returned to Sports Illustrated as chief of the news service and to the newsweeklies as News Media editor at Newsweek, his focus turned inexorably toward advocacy journalism and politics.
In 1970, he joined the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, as associate legislative director where he directed a national campaign to impeach President Richard Nixon, a drive begun the year before the Watergate scandal became news. Imagine the scene at the annual Schardt family holiday party when James McCord, who led the Watergate break-in, showed up. Schardt spent the evening trying to make sure the former CIA spook didn’t bump into any of the guests otherwise busy investigating him.
In 1974, he became executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, which had lost its funding from the Ford Foundation. During his four-year tenure, Schardt erased the organization’s debt, established a reserve fund, and created EDF’s first communications and legislative program.
In the 1980s, he devoted much of his considerable energy to writing about fundraising for non-profit organizations first as editor of Foundation News and later as vice president for communications at the Council on Foundations.
In 1987 he took a leave of absence to serve as national press secretary for Al Gore’s presidential campaign. In a March 1988 memo, Schardt warned, “your main pitfall is exaggeration.”
Friends found this amusing given Schardt’s penchant for hyperbole. But, the quote, intended as generic, pre-emptive advice to the candidate, as Schardt wrote in a February 16, 2000 essay for the Times, would haunt the Vice President throughout that campaign.
In 1993, Schardt, in partnership with communications specialist David Fenton, founded Environmental Media Services. The mission, Fenton says, was to improve the quantity and quality of environmental journalism. Coifman, one of Schardt’s hires at EMS, said, “In the early 1990s, Schardt saw green groups increasingly overmatched by well-funded corporate campaigns feeding anti-environmental Republicans in Congress. He brought modern PR tactics to the public health and environmental community free of charge. His breakfast briefings at the Old Ebbitt Grill featuring scientists and policy experts quickly became a staple for Washington journalists, transforming media coverage of climate change, toxic chemicals and many other issues.”
After retiring in 2004, he joined Friends of the Earth (FOE), serving as Chairman of the Board from 2009 until June 2019 when he was named chair emeritus in honor of his service. According to Erich Pica, president of FOE, “Arlie was instrumental in tripling the size of the organization and broadening its mandate to combine his concerns for social and racial justice with environmentalism.”
For Schardt, every introduction was an occasion for conversation, if not friendship. Roger Williams, his friend and colleague in the Atlanta bureau of Time, recalled one evening when Schardt heard an intruder trying to break into his house. Rather than calling the police or chasing him away, Schardt asked what was wrong and gave him money.
He led an effusive life, in CAPITAL letters, which he narrated at maximum decibel, punctuated by a joyous and percussive laugh. His optimism and incandescent rage at injustice never abated. “His zest for life was only exceeded by his insatiable quest for justice,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, who served as Schardt’s intern during his tenure.
Upon learning of Mr. Schardt’s death, Jane Coombs, New Zealand’s ambassador to France, said, “The Totara tree has fallen in the great forest of Tane.”
In New Zealand, Totara trees grow to be 100-feet high and can live as long as 1800 years. In Maori mythology, the Tane is the god of the forest.
Schardt is survived by his wife Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, his sister Constance Searcy, two daughters from a previous marriage, Karen Wells Schardt (Morton Grusky) and Kristin Schardt (Martin Lodish), stepson Nathan Schwartz (Lori), three stepdaughters, Michele Janin (Tom Linebarger), Nicole Sheehan (Andy Sheehan), Melanie Janin (Jean-Louis Robadey), and thirteen grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in his name to Friends of the Earth. A memorial service celebrating his life will be held at a future date.