Tom Sinclair

Former Public Information Manager

Growing up in Maine, Tom Sinclair fully expected that like many of his family members, he too would work in the newspaper industry. But it wasn’t until his senior year as a journalism student at the University of Maine that Sinclair also discovered his passion for the environment. While taking a human ecology course that discussed the biggest environmental issues of the time, Sinclair suddenly became aware of the importance of protecting and advocating for the environment.

“It opened my eyes to the whole range of big-picture environmental problems,” said Sinclair. “[I thought]- Wow! That’s really important stuff!”

While it was too late for Sinclair to change his major, he knew he wanted to focus his journalism career on environmental reporting. And so, when he started applying for graduate programs in 1977, he was drawn to the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Agricultural Journalism Department, now the Department of Life Sciences Communication.

The program was a perfect fit for Sinclair, as it combined his love for journalism with his passion for the environment. And as if by fate, as Sinclair was pursuing his master’s from UW-Madison in 1979, a communications position opened up at the Nelson Institute, then the Institute for Environmental Studies (IES). Sinclair applied, and got the job, launching a long and fulfilling career in environmental communications.

“I decided I would stay for as long as I liked it, and I stayed for 32 years,” said Sinclair. “I loved the subject, I loved being on the university campus, I ended up working with a lot of wonderful people, and I learned a lot.”

Serving as the Institute’s public information manager for over three decades, Sinclair aided in everything from writing news releases and editing newsletters, to taking on projects in radio and video production. Through these means, Sinclair played an instrumental role in drawing public awareness to the Institute’s cutting-edge research and programming.

One of the most prominent ways Sinclair raised awareness was through his involvement in Earthwatch Radio, a radio program that that was produced in partnership with the UW Sea Grant Institute from 1972 to 2007. Acting as a writer, editor, producer, and studio voice, Sinclair helped record and distribute five new two-minute features every week, which were then aired free of cost on radio stations across the country and Canada. These features covered anything, and everything, related to science and the environment, specifically highlighting the most relevant environmental concerns of the time. At its peak, Sinclair said the program aired on 150 to 160 stations, resulting in over $1 million worth of free airtime a year.

“We had stations all across the upper Midwest that ran the program, big and small,” said Sinclair. “And we [weren’t] preaching to the converted here, because this [was] on commercial radio stations.”

Throughout the 35 years that Earthwatch Radio ran, Sinclair said the program acted as a vessel for education while also increasing awareness and recognition for IES and the Sea Grant Institute.

Earthwatch was a really wonderful outreach project,” Sinclair said. “It educated people, and it was a good public relations vehicle for the university and for the Nelson Institute.”

But Earthwatch was not the only way Sinclair strengthened name recognition and media presence for the organization. In fact, the recognizable name of “The Nelson Institute” itself is in large part thanks to Sinclair. When IES was renamed in 2002 for former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson, Sinclair saw an opportunity to rebrand the Institute by establishing a name that would gain public recognition.

“I thought there was an opportunity there because the Institute had been called IES for so long… [but those are] kind of meaningless letters to anyone on the outside,” said Sinclair.

Instead of tacking on a few extra letters to the IES acronym, as many were already beginning to do, Sinclair thought – “We could call ourselves ‘The Nelson Institute!’”

After proposing this idea to the director, it seemed that everyone was on board. But old habits die hard, said Sinclair, and people were not quick to pick up the new name. Despite Sinclair’s efforts, people continued to use the old acronym. And so, when Sinclair was asked to speak at an Institute-wide retreat, he saw an opportunity. Going up on stage, Sinclair gave a brief pitch before holding up a handmade sign that read “IES” with a red diagonal line slashing through the middle. He then held up another sign with the words, “Nelson Institute,” to which the director and associate director at the time gave their nods of approval.

As if by magic, Sinclair said that by the end of the retreat virtually everyone started using the new name.

“That was a turning point,” said Sinclair. “It felt like this wonderful little victory.”

But these are only a few of the ways that Sinclair aided in advancing the mission of the Nelson Institute. Throughout his 32 year tenure, Sinclair created the Nelson Institute’s first website (as well as the second and the third), revamped and created Nelson Institute newsletters and magazines, created brochures to help recruit students, informed the public through news releases and web stories, and aided in securing donor funding at a time of major state funding cutbacks.

“I was a jack of all trades,” said Sinclair. “I just [asked,] what’s needed? What are the gaps? What’s not being done?”

Throughout his time at the Nelson Institute, Sinclair assumed the critical role of informing, educating, and engaging the public, as well as connecting with researchers and staff from all across campus. For Sinclair, this is what made his job not only important, but also highly fulfilling.

“It was perfect for me,” said Sinclair. “People were doing really interesting things here that the larger world should know about, and I’m the one who [got] to tell them … Having the opportunity to write about all these things and spread the word and get the information out — I loved that.”