Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Larry J. Gordon has been referred to by family and friends as a “pioneer” and “legend” in the field of environmental health.
Gordon wrote the legislation establishing the state Environmental Improvement Agency, now called the New Mexico Environment Department. He also helped establish Albuquerque’s State Scientific Laboratory System and Environmental Health Department, where he served twice as director.
Gordon, who died in Albuquerque on April 29 at the age of 95, served in the administration of four New Mexico governors and under several Albuquerque mayors.
Colleagues said he is an “inspirational leader” and a mentor, as well as being a scholar who has authored more than 240 scholarly papers that have been published in scholarly 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 Governor Garrey Carruthers.
“He was probably the least political person I’ve appointed to cabinet,” Carruthers said. “He was chosen for his expertise. He was very professional and made a great contribution. I was a great admirer of his.”
Mesa del Sol CEO David Campbell was an assistant to former Albuquerque Mayor Harry Kinney when he met Gordon, who was leading the city’s environmental health efforts.
“He was a thoughtful, considerate guy, and professionally, I considered him the pioneer of the environmental movement in New Mexico,” Campbell said. “He was really one of the first to recognize government’s important role in protecting the environment, and under his leadership we’ve launched programs like vehicle emissions monitoring. He was very involved in keeping the air and water clean, but he did it in a way that put government at the center when it came to making those protections a reality.”
For a time, Gordon was a US Medical Service captain and “chasing radiation in the desert,” said his son Gary.
“He went to Nevada when they were still doing above-ground testing and he was leading teams to figure out which way the radiation was blowing and evacuating communities or ranches if necessary. Because of this experience, he was compassionate and gave his time and energy to “the Tularosa Basin downwinders,” whom he believed were similarly affected by the explosions at the Trinity site.
Gordon retired as an associate professor of public administration and political science at the University of New Mexico, where he also served as a visiting professor of public administration and a senior fellow at the Institute for Public Policy.
A visionary, Gordon spoke about climate change, global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps long before it became a mainstream topic of debate, his son said.
“My dad studied and talked about it and later joked that all he got in response was crickets. He wrote essays and gave speeches, and people – even those in his circle – just didn’t get it. I know it was frustrating for him,” he said.
Deborah McFarlane, a professor of political science at UNM, said she was trained in public health and was familiar with Gordon’s work long before she met him.
“I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan and read his stuff. In the public health field, he was well known across the country,” she said. “I still teach 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 know anything about her. He said, “I used to have five secretaries,” and I said, “Well, they’re not 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 in the city’s Environmental Health Department. Gordon, he said, “was instrumental in getting me into graduate school at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.”
Gordon convinced Roades to return to the department after completing his thesis. “That was his management style, so to speak. He would do anything to help people grow professionally in hopes that he would get them running his programs again,” Roades said. “He was focused on goal attainment and professional accountability while supporting and supporting his team. He was truly an inspirational leader and he created an energetic (work) culture.”
Bruce Etchison of Farmington never met Gordon, but the two became friends through correspondence. Etchison had worked for the US Public Health Service for 30 years and knew Gordon by name and reputation.
“He was sort of the father of environmental health,” he said.
Etchison has volunteered to help Gordon edit his memoir, Environmental Health and Protection Adventures, which was published in 2020. The book contains stories detailing how Gordon dealt with problems related to Agent Orange, DDT, uranium mines, paper mills, nuclear weapons fallout measurements, and tobacco withdrawal.
“It also tells about his childhood with his pioneer parents, who were school teachers and administrators in these small 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.
Born near Tipton, Oklahoma, Gordon was two years old when the family moved to New Mexico. As a young man he worked as a ranch hand and later as a range manager for the Bureau of Land Management.
After three semesters of college, he enlisted in the US Navy during World War II and served as a medic at Bethesda Naval Hospital. After his release, he attended UNM and earned a bachelor’s and later a master’s degree in biology. In 2007 he received an honorary doctorate from UNM for Humane Letters.
He met Nedra Callendar while he was a student at the university. They married in 1950 and had three children. The couple had been married for 67 years when she died in 2017.
Gordon has served as President of the American Public Health Association and received APHA’s top honor, the Sedgwick Award for Contributions to Public Health. He has also received the Governor of New Mexico’s Distinguished Public Service Award, the UNM Zimmerman Award, the University of Michigan Distinguished Alumnus Award, and was made an Honorary Fellow of the UK’s Royal Society for the Promotion of Health.
Larry Gordon is survived by his sons Gary Gordon and his wife Terri Giron of Santa Fe; Kent Gordon and his 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 were cremated and buried with Nedras in a single tomb. There is no public service.