A retired municipal bond lawyer, James R. Ellis never held public office, never headed a major corporation, and was never rich. Yet, as a citizen activist for more than half a century, he left a bigger footprint on Seattle and King County than perhaps any other single individual. He was a leader in the campaigns to clean up Lake Washington in the 1950s; to finance mass transit, parks, pools, and other public facilities through "Forward Thrust" bonds in the 1960s; to preserve farmlands in the 1970s; to build and later expand the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in the 1980s, and to establish the Mountains to Sound Greenway along the I-90 corridor in the 1990s. He was known for his tenacity when taking on an issue: most of these projects became realities only after years of opposition. He was slammed from the right as a Communist and from the left as a lackey for the business community. He was much honored, including a First Citizen award from the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors in 1968, a national Jefferson Award in 1976, and a Lifetime Achievement award from American Lawyer in 2005.
An Indefatigable Visionary
"When you think of the legacy of the Northwest," said former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, "and all we have -- a cleaned-up Lake Washington, the green open space, even the viability of downtown Seattle, Jim Ellis' name is at the top of the list. He truly is a visionary who has dedicated himself to bettering his community" (Columns).
"Visionary" is a word often associated with Ellis, along with "venerable" and "indefatigable." Even his critics acknowledged the innate political skills that allow him to turn many of his dreams into realities. Admirers such as former Washington Governor (and later U.S. Senator) Dan Evans, who appointed Ellis to the University of Washington’s board of regents in 1965, praised his ability to listen calmly to divergent points of view, find common ground, and build support for his ideas. Microsoft founder Bill Gates once said he wanted to do as much good for his community as Jim Ellis had. Bob Gogerty, a political consultant who was an aide to former Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman in the 1970s, predicted Ellis will "go down maybe as the most significant man in this community ever" (The Seattle Times, 1987).
Ellis himself tends to minimize his accomplishments, saying "If I ever do a book, it’s going to be called ‘Friends Along the Way’ -- about all the people who didn’t get credit for all this stuff. It was not a one-man job" (Ellis interview). And he accepts the criticism along with the praise. "I don't say I don't get angry when people lay it on me in some fashion," he told a newspaper columnist in 1986, during a time of particularly acrimonious debate over the Convention Center. "But I'm getting to a point where I say, okay, I'm willing to listen. I've been wrong enough times that, if I don't listen, I've really gotten stupid. But also, I've been right enough times that if I haven't got the guts to keep moving, then I should get out of the kitchen" (The Seattle Times).
Lessons in Self-Reliance
James Reed Ellis was born on August 5, 1921, in Oakland, California, the first of three children of Floyd and Hazel Reed Ellis. His father, a native of Dayton, Washington, was trained as a lawyer but became an import-export businessman instead, specializing in trade with China. His mother, who grew up in Spokane, was a housewife. The couple lived in California for a few years in the early 1920s. After the birth of a second son, Robert, in 1923, the family returned to Washington state, settling in the Lakewood neighborhood of Seattle. A third son, John, was born there in 1928.
All three sons attended John Muir Elementary School and Franklin High School. The family had a close relationship from the beginning but Jim and Bob, only two years apart in age, were inseparable. Their bond was cemented during the summer of 1937, when their father decided they needed a lesson in self-sufficiency. He deposited them on five acres of woodland that he had bought along the Raging River, near upper Preston, with a ton of groceries, two dogs, and instructions to build a log cabin. Jim was 15; Bob, 13. (Eight-year-old John stayed home with their parents).
It rained nonstop for the first four days, thoroughly soaking the boys and all their gear. But by the end of the summer, they had a serviceable cabin. The only help they got came from a mason, sent by their father to camp with them for two weeks. He built the fireplace, using rocks the boys hauled from the river.
The brothers continued to work on the cabin for three years. Ellis still uses it. "That was a wonderful experience because we learned to do things by ourselves," he said. "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 experience taught him lessons that have served him well. As a writer for the University of Washington alumni magazine, Columns, pointed out, "Ask anyone about Jim Ellis, and one thing everyone will tell you is that Jim Ellis always comes thoroughly prepared." Dan Evans agreed: "He puts in so much work ahead of time, he has answers before you have questions" (Columns).
Love and Loss
Jim and Bob Ellis enlisted in the military on the same day, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II in 1941. Jim, who had graduated from Franklin High School in 1939, was a senior at Yale University. He was accepted into the Air Force, but told to complete his degree before reporting for duty. The two brothers were called to active duty on the same day in March 1943. The Army took Bob, made him an infantryman, and eventually sent him into combat in Europe. The Air Force sent Jim to a cadet training program in meteorology. The repercussions of that chain of events would play a major role in the evolution of Jim Ellis as a local civic legend.
Ellis graduated from Yale in 1942. That summer, he fell in love with Mary Lou Earling, daughter of a mining engineer in Alaska. Mary Lou had grown up in Nome and Fairbanks. When she reached high school age, her parents sent her to Seattle to attend the elite, private Bush School. Ellis met her for the first time while they were both still in high school, at a gathering arranged by his mother, but he initially paid little attention to the woman who would become the love of his life. "I had terrible reverse snobbery for people who had money and went to private high school," he said. "We lived in a big house in Lakewood, surrounded by smaller houses, and I developed great sensitivity to that during the Depression" (Ellis interview).
The two reconnected during the summer of 1942. As Ellis tells the story, they were on a date, driving along Lake Washington, and he was quizzing her about an engagement she had recently broken off with a young Air Force pilot. To change the subject, Mary Lou bet him that she could climb a madrona tree faster than he could. To this day, he thinks she let him win. And then: "We got back in the car and I’m thinking I really want to kiss this girl. She didn’t say anything but she moved one half inch in my direction, and boom! From that time on, there wasn’t any other girl for me" (Ellis interview).
They were married on November 18, 1944. Their first home was the Mountain Home Air Force Base in southern Idaho, where Ellis -- who had finished his military meteorology program after college -- was serving as a weather forecaster for bomber groups in training. Mary Lou completed pilot training, intending to become a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) organization; however, the WASP program was terminated just after she graduated.
In February 1945, less than three months before the end of the war in Europe, Robert Lee Ellis was killed by an artillery shell that exploded on a battlefield near Trier, Germany. Jim Ellis was devastated by the death of his beloved younger brother. "I could not understand how God could permit something like that to happen," he said. His grief was tinged with guilt: "I’m sitting in a hanger in Idaho thinking I’m not doing anything for the war effort, while Bob was carrying more than his load" (Ellis interview). In a self-destructive rage, he demanded to be sent to the front lines, vowing revenge.
Finally, Mary Lou told him: "You have to get hold of yourself. You’re trying to throw your life after his. Why not make your life count for his?" The idea of "doing something extra" -- to make up for what his brother might have done if he had lived -- was a powerful thought, one Ellis hung on to through all the years to come. It became "the seminal drive for my public service life" (Ellis interview).
In turn, Jim Ellis set an example for his youngest brother, John, who built an impressive civic resume of his own. The former head of Bellevue-based Puget Sound Power and Light (now Puget Sound Energy), John W. Ellis is best known for leading the effort to keep the Mariners in Seattle and build the team a new baseball stadium. He also served as chairman of the board of regents for both Washington State University and Seattle University; has been actively involved with the Bellevue Boys and Girls Club, and played a major role in creating a city park in downtown Bellevue. The two brothers shared the A. K. Guy Award for Community Service, given by the Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Seattle, in 1992. "Both of us were influenced by our parents," John Ellis says, "but if I had an example, it was my brother Jim" (John Ellis interview).
Jim Ellis graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1948. After passing the bar exam the next year, he joined the law firm of Preston, Thorgrimson and Horowitz (later Preston, Gates & Ellis). Acting on a vow to devote one quarter of his time to public service in honor of his brother, he became a member of the Municipal League, Seattle’s leading progressive reform organization. He quickly became involved in his first major civic undertaking, supporting the League’s attempts to rewrite the King County charter.
In April 1952, a League-backed slate of newly elected "freeholders" (citizen volunteers) hired Ellis as their attorney to help draft a new charter. The goal was to modernize and professionalize city and county government, in an effort to reduce patronage and corruption. Ellis took a leave of absence from the law firm and technically became an employee of prosecuting attorney Charles O. Carroll, who strongly opposed the proposed reforms. It was, Ellis said, "a hostile environment," made worse by the fact that on his first day on the job, a lawsuit was filed that challenged his appointment and halted his salary. He and Mary Lou, with three children by that time, were down to their last $20 when the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the appointment was valid.
The proposed charter would have replaced the three-member partisan Board of County Commissioners with a seven-member, nonpartisan County Council and an appointed County Administrator (or "Dictator," according to critics). It was opposed by both major political parties, by organized labor, and by many courthouse employees from the prosecutor on down. Ellis said two deputy sheriffs followed him to every meeting where he spoke in defense of the measure, laughing at the wrong times and leading the applause for the opposition. In November 1952, voters rejected the proposal by a margin of nearly two to one.
"Losing can be a good teacher," said Ellis. "While licking our wounds a few of us asked ourselves whether we had been on the right track. I asked myself whether improving the internal structure of county government would make much difference to the congested traffic, polluted water, and sprawling developments which were spreading across the boundaries of cities and counties, beyond the control of either" (Ellis, 5). That soul-searching led to what Ellis considers his greatest contribution to civic life, the creation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro) and the cleanup of Lake Washington.
"Father of Metro"
In November 1953, Ellis walked into a forum sponsored by the Municipal League at the YMCA in Seattle, carrying a brown leather briefcase. The briefcase -- a gift from his grandfather -- would become Ellis's signature accessory, carried everywhere, usually bulging with papers. This time, it contained a speech that called for the creation of a new kind of government -- a federation of municipalities -- to improve water quality, garbage disposal, transportation, parks, and land-use planning in King County. The central theme was that regional problems required regional solutions. Ellis hoped to convince his audience that "effective answers to certain urban problems required area-wide action and that our effort as citizens could ignite that action" (Ellis, 7).
The primary impetus was the pollution of Lake Washington. In the 1950s, more than 20 million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage were being discharged into the lake every day. Pollution-fed algae was so thick that an eight-inch white plate could not be seen three feet below the surface of the water. Popular beaches were posted with "No Swimming" signs. The Municipal League and the League of Women Voters put their considerable clout behind the effort to end the discharges. Even so, it took more than five years and one defeat at the polls before voters approved a slimmed-down Metro -- focused only on sewage collection and treatment. Transit was not added until 15 years later.
The experience taught Ellis important lessons about perseverance and strategy. The initial Metro ballot measure, presented in March 1958, carried in Seattle but was defeated in the southern suburbs of King County. It was his wife, Mary Lou, who suggested that the smaller cities take the lead in promoting a revised plan, so that it wouldn’t look as if "big-boy" Seattle was bullying them. The narrower proposal, approved in September 1958, passed in the suburbs with an even greater margin than it did in Seattle.
Ellis became known as the "father of Metro," a label he wears proudly, even though at one point critics said what he had fathered was a Communistic exercise in big government. "People could see that we were just cleaning up sewers," he said (Ellis interview).
Encouraged by the success of Metro in cleaning up the lake, Ellis and some of his fellow reformers developed the most ambitious plan for public works ever presented to King County and its cities. Ellis again served as point man, outlining the plan in a speech to the Rotary Club in Seattle on November 3, 1965. In it, he challenged the region’s leaders to prepare for the future with a "forward thrust" of capital improvements, including parks, fire stations, swimming pools, a domed stadium, an aquarium, a modern zoo, improved streets and storm sewers, low-income housing, and rail rapid transit. The wish list added up to more than $815 million, to be financed by voter-authorized municipal bonds.
In February 1968, after countless committee meetings, hearings, and exchanges of opinion pieces in the local newspapers, King County voters approved seven of 12 individual "Forward Thrust" bond propositions. Among them were measures to build a $40 million multi-purpose domed stadium (the Kingdome), the Seattle aquarium, and 25 county swimming pools. One of the propositions set aside $118 million to develop new parks and trails, including Discovery, Freeway, Gas Works, Waterfront, Marymoor, and Luther Burbank parks and the beginning of the Burke-Gilman Trail. Voters also approved bonds to improve Woodland Park Zoo and Sea-Tac Airport. They rejected a low-income housing levy and bonds to help build a rapid transit system.
The transit measure won 50.8 percent of the vote -- far short of the 60 percent "supermajority" needed for passage. Concerned over the prospect of losing more than $600 million in federal funds that had been earmarked for the project, Ellis and other transit backers resubmitted it two years later. This time, with unemployment soaring as a result of the so-called "Boeing Bust," only 46 percent of the voters accepted the measure. In 1995, voters defeated a third effort to develop regional rail rapid transit. (A scaled down "Sound Transit" plan was adopted the next year.)
The failure of these early rapid transit measures was a bitter disappointment for Ellis. The original Forward Thrust referendum, with its approved federal match, "would have saved us $6 to 8 billion," he said. "It would have been in place in 1985. It would have built more track than Sound Transit is doing. The last bonds would have been retired in 2006. You know who got our share of the federal money? Atlanta. And they built a beautiful light rail system" (Ellis interview).
Bones of Convention
Ellis devoted much of his energy in the 1970s to the issue of farmlands preservation, helping to win passage of a $50 million county bond measure to protect farms and green belts threatened by development. With that victory, in 1979, he turned his attention to the most contentious public works project he would ever be involved with: the construction and then the expansion of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center.
Seattle boosters had been dreaming of a convention center for nearly 20 years, hoping to duplicate the success of the 1962 World’s Fair in milking cash from visitors. A convention center was initially on the list of projects to be financed by Forward Thrust bonds, but it was dropped before being presented to voters in 1968. The recession of the 1970s revived the idea of a convention center as a "cash cow" that would ease the region’s economic woes. But debate over where it would be located and who would pay for it kept the project stalled for years.
In 1982, the Legislature agreed to help finance what was supposed to be a $90 million convention center. Three sites were under consideration: the Seattle Center; an area adjacent to the Kingdome; and a location that would straddle Interstate 5, next to Freeway Park (which had been championed by Ellis and built with Forward Thrust funds in 1976). Downtown business leaders favored the freeway site; virtually every other interest group opposed it, including Seattle’s city government. The downtown faction prevailed, but the controversy "aroused virtually every political rivalry in the area: boosterism vs. anti-growth, downtown business vs. the neighborhoods, developer vs. housing advocate, Republican vs. Democrat, Seattle vs. Eastside and the state" (The Seattle Times, 1988).
Ellis was initially reluctant to get involved in the battle. His much loved wife, Mary Lou, was terminally ill from the complications of diabetes, and he was spending most of his free time with her. He had, however, been following the issue in the newspapers and had called then-Governor John Spellman to complain about something he had read. Spellman responded by asking him to take charge of the project. Ellis said he was sitting on Mary Lou's bed, talking to the governor on the phone and telling him "No," when "Mary Lou pulled on my arm and said: ‘You can’t resign from the human race just because I’m sick.’ And then I got so deep into it I couldn’t get out" (Ellis interview). He ended up serving first as vice-chair and then chairman of the center’s board of directors, for a total of nearly 20 years.
The State Convention and Trade Center was completed in 1988, at a cost of $186 million -- more than twice the amount originally budgeted. Ellis said it was a "smashing" success and "worth all the pain" (The Seattle Times, 1988). Yet within just a few years, he was campaigning to double its size.
The proposed expansion engendered even more enmity than the original project, particularly from advocates of low-income housing. The Church Council of Greater Seattle and the Seattle Displacement Coalition demanded that new housing be found for the poor and the elderly who would lose their homes to the center’s appetite for more space -- likening the center to a hog wanting a bigger pen. Ellis seemed genuinely hurt and puzzled to find himself being heckled by people who accused him of displacing the poor in order to cater to business interests.
Court challenges blocked expansion plans for several years. Construction did not proceed until the center’s board promised to replace all low-income housing lost to the project. The expansion was completed in 2001, at a cost of $195 million. Ellis pointed out that the center ended up building or rehabilitating three units of low-income housing for every unit it demolished, and repaid, with interest, all the money borrowed from the state general fund to finance construction.
In 1990, Ellis took on another major civic commitment: the chairmanship of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to preserving the scenic, environmental, and historic qualities of a 100-mile stretch of Interstate 90 from Puget Sound east to Thorp, in Kittitas County. By the time he retired as board president in 2001 (as of 2009 he remains on the board), the Trust had sparked land exchanges and purchases that moved nearly 125,000 acres of land along the I-90 corridor from private to public ownership.
Of all the projects he’s been involved with, Ellis said, this one would have been closest to his brother Bob’s heart. For the more than 15 million drivers a year who cross Snoqualmie Pass, it will mean green vistas instead of strip malls along the highway. For the cougar, elk, and other wildlife in the forests, it will mean safe passageways above and below the highway. For schoolchildren in generations to come, it will mean easy access to a living environmental laboratory. Still, Ellis did not expect miracles to result from this work. "We're going to make modest gains along the edges," he said. "We're not going to change the world, but we may teach. And the people we teach may change it" (The Seattle Times, 1994).
The cleanup of Lake Washington, the dozens of parks created through the Forward Thrust bond initiatives, the Convention Center: Ellis said "the psychic rewards" of his involvement in these and other civic endeavors "have been huge." At the same time, "the costs were heavier than I wanted them to be." He regrets, above all, that "I didn’t put the time in with my children that I should have. I’m trying to make up for that now but it’s hard. That’s a price that’s paid that bothers me to this day" (Ellis interview).
Jim and Mary Lou Ellis had four children: Robert Lee Ellis II (named for his uncle), born in 1946, a teacher at the Bellevue International School; Lynn Earling Erickson, born in 1951, a teacher and historian in Olympia; and Steven Reed Ellis, born in 1955, a beekeeper and environmentalist in Barrett, Minnesota. Another daughter, Judy, born in 1948, was killed in a car accident in 1970, along with her young husband and their nearly full-term baby.
The death of his daughter was a second devastating blow for Ellis, after that of his brother. It was followed in 1983 by the death, at age 62, of Mary Lou, his wife, partner, and inspiration for some 40 years. "Untimely death has haunted me," he said. "It’s just stalked me. It’s just hard to take" (Ellis interview).
When Ellis received the Isabel Colman Pierce Award for Excellence in Community Service from the Young Women’s Christian Association in 1985, he asked that it be shared with his late wife. "Mary Lou’s ideas and unwavering support multiplied my effectiveness by more than a factor of two," he said. "Any person who goes on point for a public cause needs to gain emotional strength from family support. I remember coming home tired and discouraged on many occasions, but by the next morning Mary Lou always had me cranked up and ready to charge" (Ellis, 14).
Harvey Manning, veteran hiker and trail-guide author, once called Jim Ellis "a certifiable public saint" (The Seattle Times, 1994). But Ellis also encountered many skeptics over the years, including some who accused him of pushing public works so he could make money by selling the municipal bonds required to finance them. Ellis agreed that he and his law firm profited from his work as part-time counsel for Metro for 21 years, from 1958 to 1979. On the other hand, the firm billed Metro for much less than it billed its private clients. And beginning with Forward Thrust, he donated to charity any money that he earned through the sale of bonds on projects he supported.
"Life is interesting," he said. "If you just refuse to become cynical, it's really quite fascinating. And, in some degree, it's inspiring to see all our differences and to see that the system -- hopefully, hopefully -- can still function" (The Seattle Times, 1986). As for himself: "I’ve had a wonderful life. I was married to an unreal, wonderful woman. I had fabulous children. And I’ve known some wonderful people as a result of my civic work" (Ellis interview).