When John Bewick was named state secretary of environmental affairs, environmentalists feared that his background in nuclear power and industry would stall their progress. Instead, they found him to be an unexpected ally on issues such as passing a bottle bill and addressing hazardous waste.
“We have had a decade of confrontations and adversarial relations in the field of environmental affairs,” Dr. Bewick told the Globe in 1978 after Governor Edward J. King appointed him to the post. “I sense in both environmentalists and industries a desire to sit down together now, and I will try to encourage that. Confrontation is very unproductive.”
Richard Nylen, who formerly served as counsel to the secretary of environmental affairs, recalled that Dr. Bewick “was a very quiet leader. He was remarkably intelligent. People sometimes can get eaten up if you don’t catch on quickly. He was just a very quick study.”
Dr. Bewick, who went on to help create the Tufts University Center for Environmental Management, died Dec. 25 in his Hingham home of complications from esophageal cancer. He was 77 and previously had lived in Newton.
In 1978, his resume led many to predict he would side with King on the side of business, rather than heed the concerns of environmentalists. But the two years he spent serving with the Peace Corps in Nigeria had helped shape his views on how to strike a balance between competing interests.
As the Sahara Desert expanded, drying wells and eliminating farmland, “people were literally dying, starving, as a result of what was happening,” he told the Globe in 1983. “Seeing that makes you really concerned about your water supply, about protecting your quality of life.”
While serving as environmental secretary, Dr. Bewick supported a bottle bill to place a 5-cent deposit on certain types of containers, even though King opposed it. Though voters ultimately ratified the proposal, Dr. Bewick did not consider its passage a major accomplishment.
A critic of corruption and inefficiencies in government, he preferred to highlight changes he helped make in the Metropolitan District Commission, his efforts to address hazardous waste dumping, and his work toward resolving ongoing disputes between fishermen and the oil industry over oil exploration off Georges Bank.
“Ideas have to have landing gear as well as wings, even though that sounds a little cliche-ish,” said Nylen, who later headed the MDC. “John did both things: He came up with ideas, and then he would delegate to his staff to figure out how we would get those implemented.”
In August 1979, Dr. Bewick said his agency had found 26 contaminated wells around the state and 10 illegal dump sites, and said the state was trying to set up more legal disposal sites to reduce illegal dumping. “In my view, it’s the most serious environmental problem we face in the state at the moment,” he said then on WEEI radio’s “Bay State Forum.”
During his first year on the job, he considered leaving the post to take care of his wife, the former Hannah Wallace, who had been diagnosed with cancer; she died in 1979. King encouraged him to stay, and he told the Globe in 1983 that “having to come to work every morning . . . helped in a very real way to get through that tough period.”
John Arters Bewick was born in Baltimore and grew up in West Virginia and Baltimore. He graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and received a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from Cornell University. He also graduated with a master’s in nuclear science from the University of Michigan. While there, he attended a campaign visit by John F. Kennedy, who announced the idea of creating the Peace Corps during a speech at the university.
A few years later, after working at the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in Pennsylvania, Dr. Bewick headed to Nigeria to teach physics through the Peace Corps.
He later graduated from Harvard Business School with a master’s in business administration and worked for New York City’s environmental protection department, before moving to the US Atomic Energy Commission. While there, he worked on a key report about the safety of nuclear power plants.
“It was the first crack at a new approach. Some of the methodology needs refinement,” he told the Globe in 1978. “But basically it concluded that nuclear power is safe relative to other activities in the modern world.”
He returned to Harvard Business School for a doctorate and then worked in corporate research at Cabot Corp. in Boston. Dr. Bewick sent his resume to King’s office, expecting to volunteer to serve on an advisory committee. Instead, he was appointed secretary of environmental affairs.
At a news conference, he was asked whether his background would clash with his responsibility to regulate industries in which he had worked. “No, he replied. “I think in my career I’ve served almost as much time with public agencies as I have with private agencies. And I plan to use the knowledge and expertise I’ve acquired through all of these experiences to protect the public.”
In 1982, he married Dr. Jennifer Daly, an internist. Their marriage ended in divorce.
After serving as environmental secretary, Dr. Bewick helped create the Tufts University Center for Environmental Management, which studied hazardous waste. He then began the Compliance Management Inc. consulting firm to help companies comply with regulations his former agency had implemented. He also taught a course in environmental management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. His family said that into early 2014, he consulted on a project to present Chinese diplomatic officials with a proposal to reduce air pollution, which was modeled after programs in Los Angeles and London.
Dr. Bewick, whose name was recently engraved in granite on a commemorative marker on the Charles River, married Martha Reardon in 1999, and he moved from Newton to join her in Hingham.
Every week, he added his tenor voice to the choir at First Baptist Church in Newton.
Throughout his career, Dr. Bewick “believed in the power of leading by example, and I remember him telling me when he was at the State House, he didn’t let the lobbyist buy him coffee,” said his son John of Tewksbury. “He thought it set a tone for the office.”
A service has been held for Dr. Bewick, who in addition to his wife, son, and former wife leaves another son, Benjamin, of San Francisco; a daughter, Sarah, of Lexington; and his brother, Robert, of Dover, Del.
Looking back on his career, Dr. Bewick noted that during the time he walked a tightrope between industry and environmentalists, it was not easy to win supporters.
“I’ve had better support from the League of Women Voters than I have had from industry,” he told the Globe in 1983.Emma Stickgold can be reached at email@example.com.