Photo Essay: When Thomas Hudner cleaned the toilets at his businesses and earned his Medal of Freedom

When Thomas Hudner won the White House Medal of Freedom on Saturday, he called an honor he also received 25 years ago “one of the greatest moments of my life.” His medal was awarded for doing his part to address global environmental degradation by working to preserve endangered lands as president of Land O’ Lakes—now the country’s largest water-conservation company.

But Hudner took a different approach to assuring the conservation of the Lakes, a reservoir in the Blue Ridge mountains near his home that supplies drinking water to more than 2 million people in Virginia and North Carolina, as well as for his hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. While Hudner was president of Land O’ Lakes, he took it upon himself to clean the toilets at the company’s offices in Roanoke and at his private lake house so their filters would run more efficiently. He also reportedly cleaned his own brother’s toilet.

“You don’t see a lot of C.E.O.s going into the communities to work with them,” Hudner said Saturday, according to a Coast Guard website.

But Hudner and Land O’ Lakes have seen improvement in recent years, Hudner told the Coast Guard, saying “as long as the right people continue to work on improving their internal processes, this is an industry that will save vast amounts of water and reduce carbon dioxide and nitrogen emissions and land use.” Hudner passed away at age 98 in 2011, five years after retiring as president of Land O’ Lakes.

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