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Donald K. Ross, leading public interest lawyer, dies at 78

Donald K. Ross, who as an innovative and pragmatic public interest lawyer and philanthropist galvanized a generation of students into doing good, died May 14 at a nursing home in Salisbury, Conn. He was 78.

His wife, poet and novelist Helen Klein Ross, said the cause was lymphoma.

Donald Ross was one of the original Nader’s Raiders, a group of two dozen or so freshly minted law school students mustered by Ralph Nader in the early 1970s to challenge government and corporate bureaucracy. It grew into a national network of consumer crusaders.

Mr. Ross and his wife, Helen Klein Ross, at their home in in Lakeville, Conn., JANE BEILES/NYT

In an e-mail, Nader said Mr. Ross had built “sustainable democratic institutions with an extraordinary civic personality of resilient stamina, motivating skills, and relentless focus on results.”

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Honing the strategies he devised as student body president to revive Fordham University’s famed football legacy, Mr. Ross was for five decades at the forefront of movements on behalf of consumer protection, government ethics, environmentalism, health care, voting rights, tax reform, and access to mass transit, as well as the movement to close nuclear power plants after the partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.

“Donald’s book ‘Action for a Change’ offered a blueprint for college student activism, with a formula that focused on accomplishments, bite-sized policy victories that could cascade into fundamental changes in governance,” Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said in a statement.

As executive director of that organization from its founding in 1973 until 1982, Mr. Ross successfully lobbied for state legislation that made government more transparent and for a bill that required refundable deposits on beverage containers.

He also challenged abuses by utility companies and the dumping of toxic materials by manufacturers. His organization spawned the Straphangers Campaign, headed by Gene Russianoff, which monitors mass transit.

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Douglas H. Phelps, chair of U.S. PIRG, the national umbrella group of state organizations that Mr. Ross helped Nader start in 1970, said Mr. Ross had remained “the living embodiment of the 1970s Nader’s Raiders’ answer to the trap many in politics and academia fall into — to become gripped by hand-wringing or the paralysis of analysis.”

By 1972, U.S. PIRG had enlisted 350,000 students on 50 campuses in 13 states to engage in civic advocacy, typically financed by student activity fees.

Lee Wasserman, who succeeded Mr. Ross as director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, which Mr. Ross ran from 1985-99, said that Mr. Ross’s “exuberant insights and creative solutions” helped “nurture a generation of public interest advocates.”

Donald Kemp Ross was born June 29, 1943, in the Bedford Park section of New York’s Bronx borough. His father, Hugh Ross, was an administrator for the Conservation Foundation; his mother, Helen (Kemp) Ross, was a homemaker.

He attended Fordham University in the Bronx, where, as student body president, he was instrumental in reviving club football after a 10-year hiatus in the sport’s rich history there. (That experience “taught me how to organize,” Mr. Ross told The Fordham News in 2015.)

After hitchhiking to California in 1964 and sleeping on the floor of the press room at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, at which Barry Goldwater was nominated for president (he was “eager for the chance to see up close how politics worked,” Mr. Ross once recalled), he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1965.

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He served in the Peace Corps from 1965-67, taking the first airplane flight of his life to reach Nigeria, where he taught at a Roman Catholic mission school. He returned after two years with malaria. He graduated from New York University School of Law in 1970.

His marriage to Susan Deller ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, whom he met at Studio 54 in New York at a benefit for antiwar radical Abbie Hoffman (the first and last time either of them visited that disco), Mr. Ross leaves their two daughters, Margaret and Katherine, and a son, Mike, from his first marriage.

Mr. Ross initiated a number of spinoffs from Nader’s organization Public Citizen, which presses for government and corporate accountability; collaborated with Nader on “Action for a Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing” (1972); and wrote “A Public Citizen’s Action Manual” (1973).

He was a coordinator of anti-nuclear rallies held in Washington and New York in 1979. With Arthur Malkin, he founded a public interest law firm in Albany, N.Y., in 1984 and later an offshoot, M+R Strategic Services, to advise advocacy organizations.

Mr. Ross managed the Environmental Grantmakers Association from 1989-98; directed the National Campaign to Reform Juvenile Justice Systems from 2009-17; and was chair of environment organization Greenpeace USA in 2011.

He had been an indifferent student in law school, cutting classes so that he could take a teaching job in a public school to avoid the military draft and to work on Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968.

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“He said working at a regular law firm never interested him,” his wife recalled in an e-mail. “He wanted to use law to change lives and was more interested in social change than social work, which changed the life of only one person at a time.”