Laying the Foundation (1968–1974)

It started out, by all accounts, as a normal Sunday morning in February 1968. Twin Cities businessman Dick Gray pulled on his snow boots and coat, rounded up his two golden retrievers, and headed out on Lake Minnetonka. Using an auger, he drilled down through nearly two feet of ice — not in hopes of reeling in a trophy northern pike, but to sample water for a different sort of hobby: keeping track of what the lake he lived on was up to. For several years Gray and his friend Hibbert Hill, who had retired as vice-president of engineering with Northern States Power Company in 1965, had been tracking temperature, clarity, and other indicators of freshwater well-being on their respective lakes. That day, when Gray finally broke through, he was startled to see water stained bright red by Oscillatoria rubescens (aka Planktothrix rubescens), a type of cyanobacterium associated with polluted waters, gush through the hole. His beloved lake was sick.

Gray wanted answers. He turned to the University of Minnesota to find out what was wrong. But no one seemed to know.

So he leaped into action. Meeting first with university president Malcolm Moos and then with Richard Caldecott, dean of the College of Biological Sciences and professor of genetics, he proposed creating the infrastructure needed to understand and protect freshwater for future generations.

On December 31, 1968, Gray, Hill and Caldecott established the Freshwater Biological Research Foundation. The foundation’s articles of incorporation list four purposes: to build a freshwater research institute; to give the institute to the University of Minnesota; to support the institute; and to handle money to accomplish these other purposes.

They were ahead of the pack. A growing concern for a deteriorating environment led not only to the first Earth Day in 1970 and passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in 1970 and 1972, respectively, but to a rally around Gray’s vision. Gray and colleagues were able to enlist some two dozen corporations and foundations to help fund the first freshwater biology research facility in North America. They broke ground at Navarre, on one of Lake Minnetonka’s numerous bays, in 1972. The $4 million building, designed by noted Twin Cities architect Elizabeth “Lisl” Close, was completed — and fully paid for, without a penny of public funds — in 1974.

“Dick, why don’t you stop complaining and do something about it?”

– Kay Gray