Visions of Green
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
"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
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
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
In three summers, the log cabin was done. Ellis still uses it to this
"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
"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."