Farewell to a Fighter and a Friend: Greg Haegele
The Sierra Club and the American conservation community lost one of its brightest lights on January 21 when Deputy Executive Director Greg Haegele died after a 2-year battle with cancer. He was one week shy of his 47th birthday.
"Greg had one of the greatest strategic minds the Sierra Club has ever seen," says Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "He was like a general, always thinking a few steps ahead, analyzing how best to deploy resources, motivate his troops, and win. Greg pushed us all to succeed with mentoring, leadership, and passion. He waged war on climate change with a piercing intensity fueled by beautiful places in nature."
The awe of nature that inspired Haegele was described in a Sierra magazine column last year. Speaking to a group of colleagues about a childhood fishing trip with his grandfather, he recalled the "simultaneous fear and joy" he'd felt when a pod of feeding orcas surrounded their boat, then rocketed out of the water before slamming back down to the surface.
"We felt the sound waves inside our chests," Haegele said, noting that the experience felt like an earthly brush with a higher power. "It's the sense of how insignificant we are in the presence of greatness, as well as a sense of being connected to nature. I felt it that day."
A Seattle native, Haegele earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Emory University, a B.A. in philosophy from Whitman College, and taught philosophy at Emory and Carroll College in Helena, Montana. Prior to joining the Sierra Club he served as director of several progressive activist organizations and as campaign or field manager for gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, and state & local electoral campaigns.
Many of these campaigns were waged in hostile terrain for the causes he espoused, and Haegele was verbally and physically threatened on more than one occasion. Yet he demonstrated unwavering courage and tenacity along with a tactical acumen that earned him a remarkable track record of success.
Haegele joined the Sierra Club in 2004, serving as Deputy Conservation Director, Interim Political Director, and Director of Conservation before assuming the role of Deputy Executive Director in 2009. That same year he received the John Muir Award, the Sierra Club's highest honor.
Says Sierra Club President Allison Chin, who presented the award: "Greg dedicated himself with unparalleled drive and commitment to building the Sierra Club as the most powerful advocacy group for the environment."
He did indeed. In spite of the obvious toll his illness was taking over the last year, making it difficult for him even to walk in the final days, he willed himself into the Sierra Club's office the very week before he died. And when the end came, he died peacefully, surrounded by his family.
Those who worked with Haegele will remember an environmental warrior and a professional role model. But while he was tough as nails in pursuing his ideals, and a pit bull as a political adversary, he was also a man of exceptional sensitivity who could tear up without embarrassment in front of his colleagues.
Sierra Club organizer Paul Shively, who knew and worked with Haegele for more than 20 years, says two of the qualities that both friends and colleagues cherished about Greg were his sincerity and loyalty.
"Greg was just so genuine. People who didn't know him very well could see that in him instantly, and it made them trust him and become believers when he talked about the challenges ahead of us and how we can meet them. It was amazing how much trust colleagues who didn't know him well had in him. They just knew he was being truthful."
This writer will remember Greg for his warmth, his approachability, his modesty, and his generosity of spirit as much as for his superstar credentials as a political organizer and environmental champion.
"There are only two ways to live your life," wrote Albert Einstein. "One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."
Greg Haegele chose the latter path, and inspired those who knew him to do the same.
A memorial service is being planned for April in the San Francisco Bay Area. Greg's family requests that those wishing to make a contribution in his memory should make a donation to the Sierra Club.