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Excerpts by Henry Lane Hull

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Gilbert Gude, the former Maryland Congressman, who was the great champion of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, especially the Potomac River. He was a frequent visitor to the Northern Neck, and the impact of his legacy remains monumental in a wide spectrum of areas.

Gilbert was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up on a farm near Rockville, Md. As a child, life on the farm infused in his character a deep affinity with nature. His family were the proprietors of the largest nursery business in the Metropolitan Washington area. He matriculated at Cornell University, as he considered it to be the best school for the study of horticulture anywhere in America. After returning to Rockville, he earned a master’s in public administration from The George Washington University.

Throughout his life, Gilbert never was far from plants. He worked in the family business, planted extensively himself, and always was ready to speak extensively on all things agricultural. At the age of 30 he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, and later to the Maryland Senate, then in 1966 he was elected to represent the 8th Maryland Congressional District in the U.S. House. 

In Congress, Gilbert became one of the environmental pioneers for the decade that he served. He sponsored the legislation that established the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, as well as the Washington Metro system. During one of the congressional recesses, he led a group on a 400-mile hike down the Potomac. He wanted the Potomac to be designated a National Historic River, and to see all of the Chesapeake Basin waterways conserved and preserved. He also sponsored legislation to protect wild horses in the American West.

In 1976 he astonished his constituents by announcing that he was retiring from Congress, but as soon as his last term ended, he became the director of the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, where he served another nine years, helping to make the CRS perhaps the greatest legislative reference tool in the world.

After that final retirement, he turned his efforts to his literary career. He planned a trilogy of works on the Potomac River, the first of which was Where the Potomac Begins, which described the broad area of the headwaters of the river; in large measure it was one of the results of his long hike.

His second part of the trilogy was Small Town Destiny, which describes five communities in the Upper Potomac Basin, but the tone of the work is reminiscent of our Northern Neck towns as well. He planned the third volume to be a study of the lower Northern Neck and Southern Maryland. He interviewed many local people, seeking to capture the spirit of our region, but regrettably he died before getting the results of his research into publishable condition.

Nature and history were both passionate interests for Gilbert. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Northumberland County’s 350th anniversary celebration in 1998, and he was intrigued by historical details, all of which he easily mastered. In retirement, he taught a course at Georgetown University on the history of the Potomac and another on aspects of local flora. 

Significantly in this centennial year of Gilbert’s birth, and 16 years after his death, Congress has passed the legislation designating the Northern Neck and Southern Maryland as National Heritage Areas. He well understood the dynamism of tradition and sought to inculcate it among the citizenry. His impact on the Chesapeake Bay region and on the national scene beyond remains as an inspiration for the present and a guidepost for the future. In Gilbert’s case, one can see proof positive that one person can make a difference.

Rappahannock Record Staff
Rappahannock Record Staff
From the Rappahannock Record news team

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