Washington lost one of its most visionary and successful civic leaders last week, when Jim Ellis passed away at 98.
In memorial, there are clear waters in Lake Washington, a thriving metropolis on Puget Sound and the roar of Seahawks games. For a bouquet, enjoy fall colors across more than 1.5 million acres of parks and greenbelts in King County, including the Mountains to Sound Greenway, spearheaded by Ellis.
“He’s contributed more time and talent than anyone else I know to making this area really as good as it is,” said former Gov. Dan Evans.
Ellis also leaves a template for regional leadership and questions about whether Washington will see another such trailblazer.
Has public service become too partisan, beholden to special interests and focused on national ambitions to attract another long-term community builder like Ellis?
Such leadership is needed for issues like saving salmon runs and ensuring communities have adequate drinking water, former Gov. Gary Locke warns.
“Perhaps out of this bitter political climate we find ourselves in, maybe it will prompt a group of people to come together to be the next Jim Ellis,” he said, adding that “it could take four or five people to equal the vision, tenacity, commitment and vision of Jim Ellis.”
Both governors have stories about how Ellis got big things done.
As a legislator, Locke was involved in a heated fight over the state convention center Ellis championed.
“We were in the speaker’s office, speaker of the House, and he was on his hands and knees on the floor pointing out things in blueprints,” Locke said. “This was a person who threw himself 150% into whatever he was working on.”
Evans met Ellis in the 1950s when they were among a group of rising leaders. Many were veterans getting their lives restarted in part through civic activities. Ellis was inspired to contribute in honor of a brother killed in World War II.
“He didn’t start with a small problem, he started with the biggest problem we had at the time, which was Lake Washington,” Evans said.
The lake was a murky mess, polluted by dozens of independent sewer districts.
Evans was a freshman legislator when an Ellis-backed bill to consolidate and improve sewage treatment came up. Many were skeptical, rejecting it as big government, and some called it a communist plot. It looked to be failing as roll call was taken but passed at the last second.
Creating regional treatment facilities improved water quality in the lake and Puget Sound. That improved quality of life and created capacity for tremendous growth and prosperity.
“Leadership is important, followership is critical,” Evans said. “That’s what Jim was good at — not only having ideas and the determination to turn them into reality, but also just the ability to bring people along and to encourage them and get them just as interested and just as active as he was in carrying things out.”
In the late 1960s, Ellis was instrumental in Forward Thrust, an array of civic investments. They helped the region emerge from Boeing’s downturn by improving livability and the environment. Voters approved seven of 12 proposals, including funding for parks and the Kingdome — the Seahawks’ and Mariners’ original home.
A rail measure failed, but Metro’s success with buses helped persuade voters to eventually fund Sound Transit, in 1996.
Ellis continued building grand public spaces, including Freeway Park and the Greenway.
Evans recalled being at a luncheon when Ellis asked if the governor could spare a few minutes. They walked a few blocks up from the Olympic Hotel to a point overlooking Interstate 5.
“He said, ‘I think it’s possible we could put a lid over the freeway in this place,’ and he showed me what he had in mind, and of course that became Freeway Park,” Evans said. “His were not just ideas but ideas that deserved to be transformed into reality.”