Visions of Green

Part Two

Ellis' devotion to his community also touched his alma mater. A municipal bond lawyer with one of Seattle's most prestigious firms, Ellis, who received his law degree from the UW in 1948, spent 12 years on the UW Board of Regents, serving as a strong, calming influence during the tumultuous years from 1965 to 1977. He played a crucial role in keeping lines of communication open with students during a time when anti-war and anti-establishment demonstrations threatened to turn the UW campus violent.

"His record of civic activism is extraordinary," says Dan Evans, '48, '49, a current UW regent who has served as governor and U.S. senator. Evans appointed Ellis to the board not only because of his accomplishments, but because "I saw how he operated with people. We needed someone who could calmly listen, yet get things done."

Ellis' résumé is even more impressive when you consider most of his projects were controversial.

This poster encouraged citizens to vote for the creation of Metro to clean up Lake Washington.

He was slammed by conservatives who considered him a communist for backing Metro, calling it a "super government," and railing about the cost. Siting the convention center and a park on the I-5 lid drew opposition from locals who said it was too expensive and those east of the mountains who wanted the center outside of Seattle. Yet, the convention center has brought in millions to city coffers and Freeway Park, which opened in 1976, was hailed as a "first-of-its-kind" urban park by Sunset Magazine.

"Jim was always able to present arguments in such a sensible way that people believed him and joined him in the effort," says C. Carey Donworth, a Seattle labor management consultant who worked with Ellis in the Municipal League in the 1950s. "Most of his ideas turned out to be right. And Jim was never selfish, never seeking credit or the spotlight. He got people to work together. And he made it so they would receive the credit."

Creating Metro, for instance, was a work of genius. Setting up a regional governing agency depended on the cooperation of all the cities in the Puget Sound area-and it couldn't come off looking like "big-boy" Seattle was bullying them. Acting on a suggestion from his wife, Ellis convinced Seattle's mayor, Gordon Clinton, '42, '47, that the smaller cities should take the lead to promote the Metro plan. After two defeats at the polls, Metro won voter approval with stunning success directly because the smaller cities publicly backed it. The citizen effort that created Metro won an All-American City Award-and Lake Washington was on its way to being cleaned up.

Ellis characteristically dismisses the idea that he's the one who deserves the credit for Metro or anything else on the long list of accomplishments attributed to him. "It was because of friends; they are the ones who get things done," says the now-retired Ellis, 78, from his office on the 51st floor of the Seattle's Columbia Seafirst Center. "I only reached out to them." His list of friends reads like a Who's Who of Puget Sound: everyone from U.S. senators and Congressional representatives to state, county and city officials, and power brokers at major local companies like Boeing and Weyerhaeuser.

The Ellis family in 1943. From left, younger brother John, mother Hazel, younger brother Bob, dad Floyd, and Jim, then in his early 20s. Photo courtesy of Jim Ellis.

Born Aug. 5, 1921 in Oakland, Calif., Ellis, the son of an import-export businessman, grew up in California and Washington. He moved to Seattle in the 1920s, went to Franklin High School, and had the landmark experience of his early life when he was just 15 years old.

His father decided then that his two older sons (a third son John, '52, '53, now one of the owners of the Seattle Mariners, is seven years younger than Jim) had had it too easy. He decided they needed a wilderness experience to learn how to cut it on their own. Ellis and his brother were deposited-with a ton of groceries and two dogs-on a few acres on the Raging River (near Preston) their dad bought for $500. Their mission: build a log cabin. Oh yeah, it rained nonstop the first four days.

In three summers, the log cabin was done. Ellis still uses it to this day.

"That was a wonderful experience because I learned to do things by myself," he says. "But it was very hard work. We had to do everything by hand, and it took much longer than we expected. We had to figure everything out by ourselves."

The lessons learned during those summers are still paying off today. Ask anyone about Jim Ellis, and one thing everyone will tell you is that Jim Ellis always comes thoroughly prepared.

"His proposals are always so well prepared, and cover so many bases, you can't help but agree with him," Evans says. "He puts in so much work ahead of time, he has answers before you have questions."

But that hasn't kept him immune from critics who thought the lawyer at Preston, Gates & Ellis (previously known as Preston, Thorgrimson & Horowitz) was involved in public projects so be could reap financial rewards for the municipal bonds required to fund them.

"People used to think I would be sitting in my office counting money from those projects," he says. "In reality many of the bond issues I was working on were things like sidewalks in Soap Lake, or a road in Ephrata. I was involved in public projects because it was the right thing to do."

Roland Hjorth, the dean of the UW School of Law, says that trait is what really distinguishes Ellis. "He was a role model for all the lawyers he worked with not only because of his integrity, but because he was a citizen of the community," says Hjorth, who in the 1970s spent a year with Ellis' firm and later worked with him on municipal projects as an assistant state attorney general. "He is the exemplar of a private lawyer in public service.

"He always said for us to use our specialties for the public good. When I once remarked on the technical character of municipal bond work, Jim said his work as a municipal lawyer enabled him to participate in some of the most exciting projects of his life-projects that have improved the lives of residents of this area and that will affect the lives of residents for generations to come."

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