Bill Denneen, influential local environmentalist, turns 90

Clad in hiking boots, a charity T-shirt, shorts that displayed a pair of scrawny legs and a thick white beard that drops to his waist, self proclaimed, “eco-hooligan” Bill Denneen looked more prepared to spend an afternoon hugging trees Sunday than to receive the praises of Congresswoman Lois Capps, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and others at his 90th birthday celebration.

At the Nipomo DANA Cultural Center on Sunday afternoon, about 150 people turned out to wish Denneen a happy birthday and to praise him for his many environmental contributions over the years.

Attendees included friends, family, fellow activists, politicians, former students, as well as members of Mothers for Peace and the Sierra Club.

The ceremony began with a “Happy Birthday” bagpipe sing-along by George Rasseaou, and a flag presentation and salute hosted by the Color Guard of the Marine Corps League No. 680 in remembrance of D-Day. Denneen was a Navy medic in World War II; he was stationed on the coast of England near Plymouth and was in view of the D-Day landing.

“His life of service as well as adventure inspires all of us,” Capps said in tribute to Denneen. “He’s always been right on the cutting edge and the forefront of protecting the environment. You can always count on him to be leading the charge.”

Capps continued: “I can always expect to be nudged and pushed in a very gentle, kind way by Bill. I would call him a national treasure.”

Capps presented Denneen with an American flag that was flown over the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Achadjian also spoke, along with Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson. Hill joked that Denneen looked so good, he’s proof that, “It’s healthier to be an activist than an elected official.”

Gibson labeled Denneen as San Luis Obispo County’s “environmental conscience.” Catholic worker and conscientious objector Dennis Apel also spoke, saying, “He is a prophet, a sage and a mentor. He may be a skinny guy with a long white beard, but I think we would all be better off if we followed Bill’s example of putting his body where his mouth is.”

Apel added, “As a D-Day medic, Bill comforted the afflicted. As a biologist, educator and activist, he has afflicted the comfortable.”

When guests were invited to share stories, the tables emptied as seemingly every attendee waited in line for the microphone to share an anecdote.

“Bill is a walking embodiment of what we are trying to do in the environment; we all have things we should be standing up for,” said former county Supervisor Caren Ray.

Bill Denneen’s son, Steve Denneen, shared, “Dad, you took me to the woods and showed me how to love with nature. Now I teach my boys. You rode horses, you had an organic garden, you ran 20 miles on the weekends and you milked goats daily. You are a proprietor for equal rights. You are a courageous fighter and protector of nature.”

Three Bill Denneen Environment Awards were also awarded at the event. The awards recognize significant environmental contributions on California’s Central Coast.

A total of 96 awards have been given out. Awards were presented to Randy Knight and Karl Kempton.

A surprise award was presented to Denneen himself as Bill Denneen Environment Award Trustee David Georgie said, “There is no one better who fits the Bill Denneen Environment Award, than Bill Denneen.” In accepting the award, Denneen said, “That means I’ve arrived. I’m so thrilled to receive my own award.”

Denneen moved to Nipomo in 1960 to teach biology at Santa Maria High School. He left that job soon after to teach at Allan Hancock College, where Denneen worked for 25 years before retiring.

Denneen was a founding member of People for the Nipomo Dunes National Seashore, which was instrumental in the Nature Conservancy purchase of 2,550 acres for permanent preservation of the dune area in South County.

Alongside activist Kathleen Goddard-Jones, Denneen helped persuade PG&E not to build its proposed nuclear power plant in the Nipomo Dunes.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune