Getting Personal: Clark Bullard

Getting Personal: Clark Bullard

Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, CLARK BULLARD, a University of Illinois professor and environmentalist, chats with staff writer Paul Wood. Bullard is about to receive the National Wildlife Federation's National Conservation Special Achievement Award.

Tell us about growing up.

I'm the oldest of six kids — born into a leadership position. I learned to cut pies with amazing accuracy, because the cutter got last choice.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

Returning to Urbana from Washington, turning down an industry offer three times greater than my UI salary, so I could live the life of an activist without getting fired from my day job.

Where do you come from and how did you get here?

I was born in Springfield. I decided on aerospace engineering while standing in the backyard with dad watching Sputnik fly over. I did my undergraduate and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at the UI and worked summers in Los Angeles on hypersonic aerodynamics (ways to maneuver ICBM warheads and interceptors). I loved the beauty and solitude of the Sierra Nevada mountains but hated the idea of living surrounded on three sides by 50 miles of people. I became uncomfortable with the transient nature of the society there and preferred the Midwestern culture, where people recognize the existence of forces larger than humans and roll with the punches in life. In megacities, there's always a person to blame.

How did you become involved with local environmental activism?

My introduction to nature: hunting with uncles, Boy Scouts and family camping in a station wagon pulling a pop-up camper. On the first Earth Day (1970), I walked through the campus with geography Professor Bruce Hannon and noticed most environmental problems are related to energy — strip mining, oil spills, burning fossil fuel. So if we used half as much energy, we'd have half the problems. We secured a grant to study potential for energy conservation and published results, then the phone rang off the wall on the day after 1973 oil embargo. It was Wall Street wanting to know which products (goods and services) were most/least vulnerable to energy price increases.

What was one of your first projects?

UI machinist Bob Bales loved fishing and canoeing in the Middle Fork and asked me, a grad student, to critique engineering reports claiming a dam was needed for our water supply. I tried to beg off, "But I'm an aerospace engineer, you need a civil engineer." His reply: You can add and subtract, can't you? Weeks later, I sent a handwritten letter to State Rep. John Hirschfeld; he answered point-by-point. Democracy worked better in those days. I was hooked.

Does this have anything to do with your work in heating, refrigerating and air-conditioning?

Establishing the AC&R Center was another form of activism. In 1988, when the ozone hole was "discovered," I set out to show the UI that it was possible to get industry funding for fundamental academic research to solve societal problems. We train doctors in research hospitals, so why not train engineers in a clinical environment? Today, 30 companies from around the world pool their funds to support dozens of faculty and grad students doing pre-competitive research in our world-class laboratories.

At Prairie Rivers Network, you're a member of board of directors. I think you've been there from the very beginning? How has this organization grown?

Yes, for most of its history. Except during 1977 to 1980, when serving in the Carter administration, and 1980 to 1998, while representing the Thompson and Edgar administrations on an Interstate Compact Commission regulating waste management companies. We have a staff of 11 now.

Also, you've served with the National Wildlife Federation. What have you gained from this experience?

I've learned that steering a battleship is hard work. I served 12 years rewriting bylaws and strategic plans and hiring a young CEO to re-energize its 48 statewide affiliate organizations. I'm now relishing the relative agility of Prairie Rivers Network, not only as board member but also as a volunteer assisting staff.

You've sought to preserve a water-filled sand formation some 250 feet beneath the land surface, known as the Mahomet Aquifer. Are you looking out for future generations?

I remember reading something about "... for ourselves and our posterity." Within Champaign County, we are pumping from the aquifer faster than it's being recharged. Simple math, simple morality. Irrigated corn is profitable because groundwater withdrawals are poorly regulated. Lower water tables drain rivers and streams, too.

Did it catch on with your family?

Irene concedes that the below-zero camping on New Year's was memorable. I introduced her to backpacking — without a tent — sleeping under a shelter bluff at Lusk Creek (Shawnee National Forest) and waking to see a 5-foot icicle hanging off the blufftop.

What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?

Now: "East-Central Illinois: Exploring the Beginnings" by the late Elisabeth Hanson. Favorite: "Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

A mutt named Rusty, my three-legged companion from age 5 to 18.

What would you order for your last meal?


If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?

An eagle.

Who are your favorite musicians and why?

Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who understood Americans' connection to America.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

Taking our kids to play in woods and rivers and hauling them around America to show them what a beautiful country we have.

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite and what would you serve?

Just one, Angela Merkel, who was raised under communism and devoted the rest of her life to making capitalism humane and green. Beer and pretzels.

hat was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

Delivering newspapers on my bike (a free eight-pager, 250 copies at 2 cents each).