Virtual Memorial Service:
The memorial service will take place on Sunday, June 4, 2023 at 2:00pm EST at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, located at 6301 River Rd, Bethesda, MD 20817. For those unable to attend the memorial service in-person, you can participate remotely by joining the virtual memorial service link above.
Stephen L. Samuels, a tenacious U.S. Justice Department environmental lawyer, steadfast friend, loving husband, father, and grandfather, died suddenly January 15 after a fall in his home.
Steve kept up with a wide circle of friends that stretched back to college and high school. He and Joanna Pratt, his wife of nearly 40 years, enjoyed traveling together, attending theater and concerts (especially jazz), and sharing their life journey with friends.
Steve worked in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice for 31 years, and was Assistant Chief of the Environmental Defense Section for many of those years. He was known for his analytical and writing skills, which led to courtroom victories in some of the department’s most complex and contentious cases. He also developed a reputation for his generous mentorship of junior attorneys and his impish sense of humor. Steve became one of the government’s most recognizable experts on the Clean Water Act, especially the Section 404 wetlands protection program. In the wake of two confusing Supreme Court rulings, he developed the Justice Department’s legal strategy for defending the Act in nearly 80 lawsuits in state and federal courts nationwide; the department won 90% of those cases, earning him the nickname “Mr. Clean Water Act.”
Steve was born in Paragould, Arkansas on February 2, 1952 — which is not only Groundhog Day but, appropriately, World Wetlands Day. He was the third of three sons. His grandfather, father, and uncles ran Samuels Hide and Metal Company in the town of about 10,000. His mother was active in local and political affairs and with the small Jewish community in Northeast Arkansas.
Steve and his brothers, Danny and Ed, attended Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts for high school. After Steve graduated in 1970, he attended Tulane University. There, he cultivated his lifelong love of jazz, which he shared with any willing classmates who would join him on forays into the musical and cultural life of New Orleans. At Tulane, he also became politically active, leading the campus campaign for Democratic Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential bid. He was selected as an alternate delegate from Arkansas to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. In his senior year, he helped coordinate Direction ’74, a public affairs speaker’s series focused on national, political, and cultural issues. He was proud to host former Attorney General Elliot Richardson during the series.
His brush with national politics and some challenging convention interactions with the Arkansas congressional delegation led him to flirt with the idea of running for Congress, an idea he gave up during his subsequent years at Stanford Law School. In a 2022 posting to his Stanford classmates, Steve wrote, “I tried to make a difference through public service,” noting his 31 years at the Justice Department and his post-retirement political activism. His pride in his government service was displayed by his choice for a vanity license plate on his car: CWA 404, a reference to the wetlands provision of the Clean Water Act, which he vociferously defended.
As retirement loomed, Steve became more politically active. In the weeks before Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, Steve and Joanna mobilized their neighborhood by hanging a rainbow flag from their DC home, directly across the street from a house that Mike Pence had rented for the transition. After retiring, Steve joined Joanna in supporting Democratic candidates and causes, and working on the campaign for DC statehood. As part of that effort, Steve put together a video, titled “50 for 51,” of friends and family in each of the 50 states holding up DC statehood signs.
Steve explored videography in his retirement and created family treasures: people sharing their memories of his mother-in-law, Jean Pratt, who died at 101; a collection of all the Pratt family photos finally together in one place; a series of individual renditions of “Happy Birthday” from Joanna’s friends when she turned 70. When his first grandchild, Silas, achieved that baby benchmark of being able to turn over on his own, Steve sent around a video of the action accompanied by the old rock tune, “Roll Over, Beethoven.”
Steve, Joanna and their children, Evan and Vanessa, were members of Machar, The Secular Humanistic Jewish Congregation of Greater Washington. Steve taught Sunday school there for 13 years, focusing on discussions of God and Humanism.
To everyone who knew him, it was clear that family was the center of Steve’s life. In his 2022 message to law school classmates, Steve wrote about the birth of Vanessa’s children, Silas and Dylan, and the pleasure he and Joanna took in caring for the grandkids four days a week: “In our view, nothing can be more satisfying than helping to raise our child’s children.” And in describing a planned trip to Taiwan to meet Evan’s future parents-in-law he wryly noted: “Who knew that the words “in law” could be such a pleasure to utter?”
In retirement, Steve told friends and family that he had never been happier.
Years before, he left instructions on how to cope with death. Speaking at a Machar memorial service for a friend who had died suddenly, Steve said the best way to move forward is for people to incorporate his friend’s qualities into their own lives. He listed his friend’s “unselfish good deeds, unwavering optimism, contagious enthusiasm, wonderful sense of humor, and unabated love for his family.” Steve, who could have been describing himself, ended with a promise of “relishing every moment that I am alive, and cherishing every moment that I share with friends and loved ones.” He kept that promise and more.
Steve is survived by: his wife, Joanna Pratt; their children, Evan Samuels (Ingrid Chou) and Vanessa (Benjamin) Cheshier; and grandchildren, Silas and Dylan Cheshier. He is also survived by his brothers, Danny Samuels and Edward (Marcia) Samuels; nephew, Richard (Vardit) Samuels; niece, Claire Samuels; and sister-in-law, Judith Pratt (Tom Bruce).
The family asks those wishing to donate in Steve’s memory to contribute to the National Association of Wetland Managers in Portland, ME. (https://www.nawm.org/), Tom Cole’s G Strings program on WPFW Radio (https://wpfwfm.org/radio/), or Potomac Riverkeeper Network (https://www.potomacriverkeepernetwork.org/). A memorial service (which will also be live-streamed) will be held at 2:00 pm on June 4 at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda (6301 River Rd, Bethesda, MD 20817).