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New film shows environmentalist and former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall’s legacy

Stewart Udall squinting into the sun at the foot of the airplane stairs.
Department of the Interior. National Park Service. Midwest Region. (06/1962)
National Archives and Records Administration
Stewart Udall squinting into the sun at the foot of the airplane stairs.

A film highlighting the life of renowned environmentalist and former interior secretary Stewart Udall is set to premier Saturday at the Santa Fe International Film Festival and will be screening in other venues around New Mexico.

Director John de Graaf spoke to KUNM about where the inspiration for his film "Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty" came from and its importance to New Mexicans.

JOHN DE GRAAF: "Stu" Udall was such an amazing figure, and I was sort of amazed that no one had done a television biography of him, given his stature and what he had accomplished. I met him way back in 1988, and interviewed him for a PBS documentary that I did then. I was hugely impressed by him and I saw a little piece in The New York Times, a couple of years ago that if he were still alive, he would have turned 100. That led me to think: 'Wow! Stewart Udall! I wonder if anybody's done a film?' And I discovered that no one really had, except KNME did a very nice 15 minute segment about him, but there was no full-length biography. So, I decided he deserved that. I had no idea when I started how important the story is.

KUNM: "Stu" Udall is hailed as many people's hero when it comes to protecting our environment. In fact, as you point out, he was one of the first public officials to voice his concerns over climate change. I'm wondering after creating this film, what legacy do you think he leaves behind?

DE GRAAF: Well, it's amazing. I mean, I knew about his environmental records. So that wasn't new to me. But what did surprise me was his incredible record in terms of fighting for racial justice, in terms of fighting for Native American self-determination, spending 10 years of his life, fighting for compensation for the victims of atomic fallout and uranium mining cancers. His work on the arts, bringing the arts and poetry and things into the White House and the Capitol. Stewart just there was so many things that he was interested in, and that he did, and such an intellect plus writing nine books, most of them historical books.

KUNM: Well, and you've mentioned, you've done other films for PBS, but what exactly caught your eye to do this film other than there hasn't be a film done on Udall yet? 

DE GRAAF: Well, I just thought he was such an amazing person. I was basically in high school and college age during the time that Stewart was Secretary of Interior. And I wasn't an environmentalist. So, I didn't know about him. I was very close friends in my life with David Brower, the Sierra Club environmentalist who I did make PBS biography of in 1990. And that's when I met Stewart for the first time.

But, I just felt like Stewart's message of working across lines and of cooperating with people, and of how important the environment is and also... Yeah, being the first, along with Daniel Moynihan, being the first public official to speak out about climate change. Pretty significant. He was just a visionary as his son, Tom [Udall], your former senator, points out in the film, he could see the big picture over the long run.

KUNM: Let me ask you, why is it important to highlight Stewart Udall's work and do these showings in New Mexico, specifically? 

DE GRAAF: Well, he spent the last 20 years of his life in Santa Fe, his son Tom was a US senator. He loved New Mexico, he loved Santa Fe, and the Southwest he was particularly fond of. He grew up in Arizona, and went to the University of Arizona. Forced, really, the University of Arizona to integrate when it was still a Jim Crow school when he was a basketball star in the 1940s––he and his brother Mo. And he just loved the Southwest, the Red Rock country, all of that and spent a lot of his time trying to protect that land. He had an intimate connection with New Mexico also with the Native people, the Navajo Nation, the pueblo groups and so forth... The arts of New Mexico, his wife in particular, was a great devotee and advocate of New Mexican Indian art.


Santa Fe

  • 10/22 World Premiere at the Santa Fe International Film Festival, Center for Contemporary Arts. 2:45pm

  • 10/23 St. John’s College in the Great Room, 7pm

Silver City

  • 10/25 Western New Mexico University in the Light Hall, 7pm


  • 10/26 New Mexico State University, Room TE 128. 6pm


  • 10/27 University of New Mexico in Dane Smith Hall Room 123. 6:30pm

  • 10/28 Valle del Oro (Historic Site by National Park Service) in the Visitor Center. 2pm
Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.