In May of 1969, pilots Eugene Cernan, John Young and Commander Thomas P. Stafford set flight in the 4th American manned flight into space. Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the moon landing to come, a test of low approach orbit to calibrate the descent guidance system to within 1-nautical-mile needed for a landing. The ascent module, the vessel two astronauts lifted off in after visiting the lunar surface, was short-fueled on purpose for this particular mission.
“A lot of people thought about the kind of men we were” pilot Cernan said. “ ‘Don’t give those guys an opportunity to land, because they might!'”
The crew maintained their mission and flew several successful test orbits around the moon. The mission insignia was that of a large, three-dimensional Roman numeral X sitting on the moon’s surface, in Stafford’s words, “to show that we had left our mark.” The mark they made, however, was more profoundly felt on their home planet Earth. Apollo 10 carried with it the first colored television camera into space. Some of the images displayed the whole of the Earth, all of its round glory in the blackness of space. The pictures brought back from this inspired period of explorers sparked a broad public fascination with the bigger picture of things. The long and timeless dialogue about human life grew broader and more vexing in 1969, spurring incomprehensible thoughts and dreams about the grand uniqueness of Earth in its vast loneliness of space. For John McConnell, the pictures encapsulated a vision of one singular home that every human being must share. After seeing the images in print that year, McConnell suddenly had a visual brand that represented every social and environmental cause he ever pursued.
John McCollen was born in 1915 in Davis City, Iowa, but didn’t remain there long. His evangelical parents traveled about, their family living out of a modified van. Despite the lack of structured education, the vagrant boy showed early promise and visited libraries regularly across the country, from the Southwest desert to the snowy Great Lakes region. Early in his adult life, McCollen served as business manager of the Nobell Research Foundation in Los Angeles. The laboratory responsible for developing thermosetting plastics hardly seems like the humble beginnings of Earth’s most prolific advocate. Still, his interest in religion, science, and peace propelled him to seek solutions as his concern for ecology grew. Even during his time at the Foundation, after greatly considering their impact on nature, the team successfully developed plastics made from walnut shells.
John McCollen made a Roman numeral X of his own on October 31, 1957, just a few weeks after Earth witnessed its first artificial satellite, Sputnik. McCollen wrote an editorial for the Toe Valley View entitled, “Make Our Satellite a Symbol of Hope”. The article called for peaceful cooperation in the exploration of space in the wake of domestic violence and international tension. The small-town editorial from North Carolina was reprinted in hundreds of newspapers across the country and led to the founding of the Star of Hope organization. The foundation aimed to engender international collaboration in space expedition. After moving their publication to California, McConnell and his editorial partner, Earling Toness, urged the White House to sponsor a joint venture with both American and Soviet astronauts. President Kennedy supported the idea and, later, President Nixon obtained agreement between the conflicting nations.
McCollen went on to lead a multitude of social causes and ecological movements in the decades to come. The tall, enthusiastic man directed the efforts of Meals for Millions, feeding thousands of starving Hong Kong refugees. He worked tirelessly on the Minute for Peace program, a radio broadcast that collected conversations and interviews from some of the world’s brightest and powerful advocates of peace and diplomacy. As concern grew over the mistreatment of lands and oceans, he conceived the idea of Earth Day. It was proposed at a UNESCO conference in San Francisco to be held on the vernal equinox, a time when the sun is shared equally between the Southern and Northern hemispheres of the planet. Not long after, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson began promoting an annual Environmental Teach-In, and proposed it be celebrated around April 20. McCollen and Senator Nelson vied against one another for control of the event, and confusion over a decided date carried on for over a decade. Still, the two entities progressed forward to make many contributions to the annual celebration. McCollen created an Earth Day Flag to represent all peoples, a silk screen of white (clouds) and blue (ocean). The original flag had no forms or colors to represent land, territory, or borders. But then, flipping through the pages of Life Magazine in 1969, McCollen saw the profound images taken from space, as though the moon itself aimed a camera at Earth and snapped a mug shot for us all. A new Earth Day flag was created using the image of Earth as seen from space, and it is still flown today when Earth Day is recognized annually at the U.N. It is the only acknowledged flag that represents all people of the world.
After taking time to be with his wife, Anna, and their two children, the self-educated man from Iowa (and everywhere else) formed the Earth Society Foundation. The organization was put in place to promote the Earth Day Flag and, more importantly, the Earth Trustees. The idea came to McCollen while sitting in a restaurant in Texas, and he immediately transcribed the idea in writing. Upon a used placemat he decreed:
“Let each person choose to be a Trustee of Planet Earth, each in their own way, seeking to think, choose and act in ways that will protect, preserve and increase Earth’s natural bounty, ever seeking fair benefits for all Earth’s people and for its creatures great and small.
– John McConnell, Earth Trustee Challenge, early 1970s
It is likely that John McConnell is not a household name today, nor was his name back then. Yet, his message is farther-reaching than most, having rallied family and friends, educated thousands of students and fellow citizens, enlightened senators and representatives, allied with U.N. members, and challenged world leaders to do better by their people and environment. Today, John McConnell is well into his 90s and is still a restless advocate for environmental awareness and care of our planet. He and his wife, having spent the majority of their marriage in Brooklyn, NY, later moved to Colorado. Anna insisted that her husband walk a quarter-mile every day. Most days, McConnell sits at a small desk in a second bedroom they made into a quaint office, working on the computer and telephone 4 to 8 hours a day in order to further his message. Days before his 90th birthday in 2004, at the start of an interview with his biographer, McCollen prayed.
“Dear Heavenly Father, we pray that, as I reach near the end of my sojourn here, whatever your mission for me is that I might clearly understand how I can make a difference in changing the global state of mind and providing a way to continue the human adventure.”
We all would do well to remember John McCollen, not for an annual day of awareness and appreciation, but for his unending effort to preserve and protect the little dot in the cosmos we all share and call home. Let Earth Day be not just a passing day of environmental awareness or beautifying the Earth. McCollen’s concern for the Earth was not just on Earth Day, but every single day. Let this day act as a reminder of the continual, long-term efforts needed from every global citizen. Let this day be one to inaugurate new Earth Trustees, become one yourself, and enact individual resolutions to change our daily habits for the betterment of each other and our planet. It is important that, on this day, everyone take a step back and look at the bigger picture, as John McCollen once did, and carry it forth everyday thereafter.
Vort Port International, Media Director