Longtime activist, NYPIRG founder Donald K. Ross dies at 78

ALBANY — Donald K. Ross, partner at lobbying firm Malkin & Ross and co-founder and former executive of NYPIRG and its many national affiliates, died last weekend after a brief illness.

He was 78 years old.

Ross was one of the original “Nader’s Raiders”, the group of consumer advocates and militant lawyers who worked with Ralph Nader in the 1970s to challenge both the government and corporate giants like GM on a wide range of issues, including car safety and pollution.

Ross is credited with inspiring countless students to become activists, with many of his proteges taking up environmental, consumer and progressive causes as careers or lifelong hobbies.

“Donald was the Johnny Appleseed of his generation. There are thousands of activists dedicated to making the world a better place who grew from the seeds he sowed,” said his longtime lobbying partner, Arthur Malkin.

“He was truly a builder,” said NYPIRG executive director Blair Horner.

Horner met Ross in the late 1970s on Long Island when he was involved in the anti-nuclear movement, which spread after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

A Bronx native and product of parochial Catholic schools, Ross’ activism began at Fordham University where he organized an effort to revive Fordham’s then-dormant football team into a club sport.

After graduating in 1965, he served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria and then attended law school at New York University where he met Ralph Nader.

Ross eventually joined Nader’s Raiders, pushing for change on various public issues, including federal trade policies, environmental regulations, and consumer safety.

Spurred on by Three Mile Island, groups like NYPIRG targeted the nuclear power industry and Ross organized the No Nukes March on Washington, which echoed the anti-war protests of the 1960s and spawned to a national movement.

Much of Ross’ work over the years has focused on environmental and health issues, and his resume in this area is almost too long to list.

He helped lead Greenpeace, organized campaigns to help thalidomide victims in Europe, and worked to protect Alaska’s forests and fishing grounds from overexploitation.

“He really changed my life,” said Judith Enck, who, like Malkin and countless others, was inspired by Ross during her college years.
“I’ve always been impressed with his commitment to community service and the fact that he built this organization from the ground up,” Enck said of NYPIRG.

Enck became adviser to the governor and regional administrator of the EPA. She then launched Beyond Plastics, which describes its mission as “to end plastic pollution”.

In addition to environmental causes, Ross worked to reform the juvenile justice system and was, among other things, a trustee of the Rockefeller Family Fund.

“He always wanted to change as many lives as possible for the better,” said Ross’ widow, Helen Klein Ross, who is a poet and novelist.

She recalled how they met while fundraising at famed Studio 54 nightclub in Manhattan. He was there with other NYPIRG members.

She had just gotten out of a relationship and was due to meet colleagues at the advertising agency where she worked at the time.

It was a snowy night, however, and few of his work friends showed up.

They met in the locker room queue, went out for a drink and the rest was history.

“It was the first and last time either of us was there,” she said of Studio 54, adding that the couple’s two daughters have always enjoyed the dating story.

“We’ve been together ever since,” she added.

Klein Ross said there will be a memorial service Sunday near the couple’s home in Lakeville, Conn., and a larger tribute to them in the fall.

[email protected] 518 454 5758 @RickKarlin

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