The White House & Me

By Paul Gipe

I’ve been invited to the White House only once. Jimmy Carter was the only President to ever invite me. For a poor kid from Indiana it was a big deal to find a envelope in the mail from the White House with a formal invitation to the Rose Garden inside.

Was it for a private dinner with Jimmy and Rosalynn? No, the special event was Jimmy Carter signing the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. The date was 3 August 1977.

It had been a long time coming. My fellow environmental troublemakers and I in ENACT, an environmental action group at Ball State University had been clamoring for federal regulation of the strip mining of coal—or surface-mining in the jargon of the coal industry—since 1971.

Note: I jumped the gun on this eulogy. As of 31 May 2023 Jimmy Carter was still alive and living in hospice.

We’d lobbied the Indiana State Legislature for stricter controls statewide and we’d worked the halls of Congress on more than one occasion, meeting with as many congressmen and their staff who would meet with an unkempt group of long-hairs clomping around in their hiking boots.

It was a momentous effort: a citizens’ movement from across the land taking on the powerful coal industry. It was at the same time inspiring, and terribly depressing. The men and women I worked with then have remained life-long friends. Our lives were threatened more than once and some of those we worked alongside had been beaten by coal industry goons.

We met courageous authors like Harry M. Caudill, who wrote the powerful Applachian tale Night Comes to the Cumberlands. We worked alongside Navajo and Hopi trying to stop the Black Mesa mine and power plant. We spent uncomfortable nights on the floor of a church near the Library of Congress Annex, so we were close to halls of Congress.

On our last great lobbying effort, a fellow student and I stayed behind to spend a few more days lobbying Congress as our group made the long drive back to Ball State. We took the train home from Washington, DC. That route took us up the Chesapeake, along the Susquehanna to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was June 1972. It rained all the way as Hurricane Agnes hit the eastern shore and the Mid-Atlantic States. The river was rising fast and there were fears on the train that we wouldn’t make it to Harrisburg. We did, but as we crossed the Susquehanna on our way to the Midwest, it was clear we would be last train out. We barely missed the Great Harrisburg Flood of ‘72.

But political momentum was on our side and we felt confidence that we were about to win. Then disaster struck. Republican President Gerald Ford vetoed our bills not just in 1974, but again 1975, at the behest of the coal industry.

The memories of those days are seared into my memory. The effort pushed me into renewable energy.

Finally, the bill passed the third time and President Jimmy Carter was going to sign it in the Rose Garden alongside the hundreds of people from all across the country who made it happen. And I was to be one of them.

Alas, I wasn’t there. I found the invitation in September after I returned from Montana where I’d been. I was crestfallen. No one’s ever invited me back.

That summer I missed an opportunity of a lifetime. I’d been working dawn to dusk corralling abandoned windchargers that I had located the summer before. I was buying junk wind turbines from the prairies that I planned to rebuild and install as a demonstration of the new industry to come, the wind industry.

Since then I’ve held Jimmy Carter in high regard for what he delivered. He not only signed the Surface Mining Act, he created the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), and the original programs to spur energy conservation and the rapid development of renewable energy. He was also a humble man who tried to do good in the world, a man who practiced his Christian teachings.

He made a difference in my life as he did for many others.

Jimmy Carter will be missed. He led a good life.