by Henry Lane Hull
Several weeks ago driving along the Clara Barton Parkway in Montgomery County, Md., as I looked down on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal my thoughts turned to the late Maryland Congressman, Gilbert Gude. In his long political career in the House of Delegates, State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives he was the undisputed champion of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
Gilbert was also a great friend of the Northern Neck. He visited here often, particularly after leaving Congress, and wrote prodigiously on the area. At the time of his death in 2007 he was at work on the last volume in his trilogy on the Potomac. His first book was Where the Potomac Begins, followed by Small Town Destiny, a study of five small towns along the river.
The C. & O. National Historical Park was one of his greatest successes, opening up the length of the canal from Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md. thereby affording the residents of Washington, Maryland and Northern Virginia a vast space for outdoor recreation in the midst of urban sprawl. As a state and national legislator Gilbert labored unceasingly for the park’s establishment and once achieved, he liked to join the multitudes by going biking along the towpath. Few, if any, would have realized the role their fellow biker had played in making the park a reality.
A native of Washington, D.C., Gilbert studied horticulture at Cornell University and received a master’s in public policy from George Washington University. He was at his best working with nature, whether politically or personally hands-on. His family owned the Gude Florists and Nursery businesses in Maryland, thus he came by his affinity for the natural world quite intensely.
Gilbert was an environmentalist before the term came into popular usage. He saw population growth as being on a geometric progression and land resources as being finite, hence the need to encourage sound practices in caring for the natural environment. He also was committed to equality in the use of our natural resources and the enjoyment of our rights as citizens. In that arena he was a staunch backer of home rule for the District of Columbia.
After leaving Congress in 1977 he served, at the request of Daniel Boorstin, the historian who was serving as Librarian of Congress, for eight years as director of the Congressional Research Service of the Library. He often said that was his favorite job, making knowledge available to the members of Congress and their staffs in order to promote greater accuracy in the legislation they passed.
With respect to the Northern Neck, Gilbert used his visits here to document history and to understand its role in contemporary events. He was fascinated by the menhaden industry and wrote about its role in maintaining a sustainable Chesapeake Bay. He probed through obscure places recording their once important role in the life of the area. On many of his visits here he addressed local societies, always in the company of his wife, Jane, who managed the audio-visual part of the presentation. He said he liked to dine at Lee’s Restaurant in Kilmarnock because there he could feel the authentic pulse of the lower Northern Neck. Back home in Montgomery County, Gilbert taught history courses on the Potomac at Georgetown University and other educational institutions.
The Potomac and the bay are not yet to the pristine condition that Gilbert envisioned. He was acutely aware of the need for underwater vegetation to thrive in order to foster the revival of habitat for threatened species. He also looked to the time when all pollutants could be eliminated from going into the waterways.
In many respects he was one of the early pioneers of the environmental movement, capable of seeing the entire scope of what needed to be done to afford future generations the joy and pleasure he experienced in history and nature. For Gilbert the two were intertwined, making a unified whole that makes the Chesapeake watershed the wonderful place that it is.