Visions of Green

Part Three

Jim and his wife, Mary Lou. Photo courtesy of Jim Ellis.

After high school, Ellis went to Yale on scholarship but was homesick for the Pacific Northwest. He received a certificate in meteorology from the University of Chicago before enlisting in the Air Force, but when the war was over, he went to law school at the UW.

"I loved my time at the UW," says Ellis, who with his dad watched Husky football games as a kid. "While I struggled at Yale, life was now different in law school. I was married, and we had a baby. I didn't loaf one inch." Indeed, he mowed lawns and worked in the law library to earn money. "But I was scared in school at first," he recalls. "I was in a real property class, and it was like Greek to me."

Ellis had another unfathomable UW experience years later when he was a regent. Ellis, a veteran, personally supported the Vietnam war, and couldn't understand why a son of his was a war protester. A serious rift developed in his family. But Ellis' wife of 40 years-who passed away in 1983 from complications of diabetes-forced the two to work out a compromise. They did. The son decided to go into the Peace Corps, and dad and son were in good graces with each other again. That experience shaped Ellis' term as a UW regent.

Serving as a UW regent during the 1960s, Ellis (right) raps with UW students during a student retreat off-campus. Photo courtesy of Jim Ellis.

"I learned to listen to students and their concerns," he says. "A lot of what they said had a lot of merit. We had to be open to them." When angry students demanded to meet with some regents, Ellis and Robert Flennaugh, '64, a Seattle dentist then serving on the board, went to a room in the HUB where the meeting was to be held. Two chairs for them had been perched on a table overlooking the entire room. "It was like we were going to be kings presiding over everyone," Ellis recalls. He immediately got rid of the chairs, and sat on the floor, along with hundreds of students.

"If I had a list of most-admired men, Jim Ellis would be at the very top," Flennaugh says. "He is a man of conviction, but he can get things done without running over people. He was an excellent regent because he was very active, and spent a lot of time talking with students. He was a terrific representative of the University and helped it survive a difficult period." His calm nature serves him even at the highest levels. At a meeting in Olympia with state legislators some years back, Flennaugh became upset when a legislator who was particularly hostile toward Ellis made an offhand comment about the "dog and pony show" Ellis always put on when trying to get state support. Flennaugh, who accompanied Ellis on that trip, told him about the remark. "Later, I mentioned the comment to Jim, and he said, 'It's just politics. Don't take it to heart.' "

He goes on. "If something is defeated, it need not be the end of the vision," he says. "There will be another day and another chance."

Ellis, who retired from law practice in 1991, remains as busy as ever. The man who was the visionary behind Waterfront Park, Luther Burbank Park, Marymoor Park, the Seattle Aquarium among many, many other civic projects, shows no signs of slowing down. Working nearly full time on preserving a 20-mile stretch of the I-90 corridor from Snoqualmie Pass to Puget Sound, and the expansion of the convention center, he does not see a day when he still stop using his ability to bring together disparate and conflicting interests.

"What we are working on means so much to this area," he says. "And I think Bob would have been proud." · Jon Marmor, '94, is associate editor of Columns.

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