Jim Ellis on Dr. Robert Flennaugh

  • By Jim Ellis
  • Posted 3/11/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22688
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Among his many achievements as a civic activist, Seattle attorney Jim Ellis (1921-2019) led the campaign to clean up Lake Washington, pushed for development of the Washington State Convention Center, and founded the Mountains to Sound Greeway Trust. In this excerpt from his memoirs, Ellis writes about his friend Dr. Robert Flennaugh (b. 1937), the first Black to serve on the University of Washington's Board of Regents.

Dentist by Trade

"Dr. Bob," as he was known, was a highly regarded Seattle dentist who had graduated from the University of Washington and its School of Dentistry. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, he had been the drum major of the UW band during his senior year. His wife Bernice and their two young sons were an attractive family. We soon became good friends and Dr. Bob’s judgment and courage proved to be invaluable to the Board of Regents and administration of the University.

Robert Flennaugh was born in Merced, California, on November 12, 1937. His father, Morris Flennaugh, was born June 11, 1907, in Helena, Arkansas. His mother, Alice Addie Cornelius Simpson, was born February 22, 1914, in Luther, Oklahoma. Morris was a farm worker and laborer, and Alice was a homemaker. Bob started school in a one-room schoolhouse on a farm near Redtop, California, and attended school there through the eighth grade. Although Bob’s father had only a third-grade education, he believed strongly that it was vital for his children to have a good education. Bob’s mother taught the value of hard work by taking her young son into the fields to chop and pick cotton. Morris Flennaugh decided he wanted his family to have more opportunities than farm labor, so he moved his wife and six children to Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1952. They drove to Fairbanks on the new Alaskan Highway and settled into a new life.

It was in Fairbanks that Bob graduated from high school in 1955. He went on to attend two years of college at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, then transferred to the University of Washington to complete pre-dental studies. A tall man, Bob became a drum major in the UW Marching Band. He entered the School of Dentistry in 1960, graduated in 1964, and developed a successful career in private dentistry, with an office in the Shoreline area, just north of Seattle. Bob met his wife Bernice in college, and they were "just right" for each other.

Bernice Giggans-Flennaugh was born September 28, 1941, in Morrilton, Arkansas. Her father was born December 15, 1916, in a small junction called Curtis, Arkansas. Her mother, Willa Mae Wesson Giggans, was born in April 1921, in Morrilton, about 50 miles north of Little Rock. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Bernice’s parents moved to Bremerton to be near available war work. Both of her parents worked in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Her parents expected her to go to college. It was never "if" you go to college, but "when" you go.  She graduated from the University of Washington College of Education in June of 1963, and her brother graduated from Western Washington College.  

Bob and Bernice were married in Bremerton on December 21, 1963. Their first home was an apartment in Seattle, and they were blessed with two sons, Robert Flennaugh II and Damon Elliott Flennaugh.

On March 25, 1970, five years after my appointment to the Board of Regents and during my first turn as chairman, Governor Dan Evans appointed Dr. Bob as the first African American to serve on the Board of Regents of the University. He [Evans] made every appointment carefully with an eye to its effect on the UW. However, he also focused on his long-range goal of creating diversity on the Board of Regents and our common purpose of increasing the number of Black students in the state’s higher-education system.

Dr. Bob and I worked together on other matters over the years [in addition negotiating with student protest groups], and I came to believe that this man had extraordinary ability to find common ground. The university became a leader in affirmative action programs due in large part to Dr. Bob’s support for the creative leadership of President Charles Odegaard.

Both of Bob’s sons followed their father and attended the University of Washington. Robert II graduated in 1991. After a year of study and travel in Europe, he entered the UW Law School and graduated in 1996. Their other son, Damon Elliott, graduated from the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the UW in 1992 and earned a master’s degree in Industrial Engineering in 2000. 

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