Frederick E. Ellis — who died Feb. 5 of congestive heart failure — is remembered as a tireless conservationist in the San Juan Islands. But by any measure, he achieved a staggering amount in his 93 years as a Renaissance man whose expertise ranged from teaching philosophy to winning a Cattleman of the Year award.
Frederick E. Ellis was especially fond of this aphorism from the biologist and author E.O. Wilson: “Man will not be defined by what he has created, but by what he has chosen not to destroy.”
By that measure, Mr. Ellis — who died Feb. 5 of congestive heart failure — is remembered as a tireless conservationist in the San Juan Islands. But by any measure, he achieved a staggering amount in his 93 years as a Renaissance man whose expertise ranged from teaching philosophy to winning a Cattleman of the Year award.
“In the San Juan Islands we have a lot of characters, but he kind of stands out as someone everyone knew,” said Tim Siefert, a friend and the executive director of the San Juan Preservation Trust, on which Mr. Ellis served since shortly after its inception in 1979. “He was very much the father of Shaw Island.”
Siefert remembers Mr. Ellis as a tall, slender man with a racy sense of humor and outspoken liberal views, who would offer you a martini when you showed up at his place but always pour himself a sherry. “Whether you were politically with him or against him, he always made you smile when you saw him.”
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Born in Portland, Mr. Ellis graduated from Reed College in 1935, earned teaching credentials at Western Washington University, then taught math, Latin and shop at Anacortes High School before leaving to earn a doctorate in educational philosophy at Harvard.
He took time out to serve as a medic and ambulance driver in World War II — an experience that “haunted him until his last days,” said his daughter Liz Ellis. In Burma, a land mine killed one of his friends and injured Mr. Ellis, leaving him with a permanent limp, Seifert said. Staunchly anti-war afterward, Mr. Ellis and his wife, Marilyn, were part of the effort to help young men get to Vancouver, B.C., and avoid the Vietnam War draft. He retired from Western Washington University in 1978.
Mr. Ellis played the piano and organ and was an avid astronomer who made his own telescope and became a Pickering Assistant at the Harvard College Observatory. He was passionate about sailing and made four trans-Atlantic voyages. He was a philanthropist who established the Fred and Marilyn Ellis Biological Preserve at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories.
“He was known for a lot of things, but as he got older he got known for environmental issues,” Seifert said. Mr. Ellis and his brothers — who preceded him in death — began buying acreage on Shaw Island after World War II, and according to a 2007 Reed Magazine profile, he owned about a quarter of the island. Seifert said, “He put his money where his mouth was in that he and his brothers conserved something like 1,300 acres in the San Juans. In some cases he gave the land away and in some he put in conservation easements — which were permanent restrictions of development.” Mr. Ellis also was a founding board member of the Friends of the San Juans.
What accounted for this drive to preserve the land, particularly on the sparsely populated and largely undeveloped Shaw Island?
“His father and grandfather told him, ‘In order to keep this the way it looks for the future, you’re going to have to step up and take care of this,’ ” Seifert said. “He really felt it was his responsibility, with the land that he could manage to acquire, to save that.”
Liz Ellis believes her father’s obsession with preserving the land was tied to his interest in astronomy: “He had a sense of the magnitude of the cosmos and how, at least as far as what we know now, there’s no other planet like Earth out there, and the diversity of human life and incredible fragility and balance of systems on this planet that keep it going. And yet human beings are doing such a good job of mucking it up quickly.”
In addition to his daughter Liz, of Seattle, Mr. Ellis is survived by children Jane M. Ellis of Bellingham, Frederick E. Ellis Jr. of Shaw Island, Anne D. Ellis of Seattle, Miriam D. Holt of Los Angeles and Margaret H. Ellis of Los Angeles; eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Mr. Ellis was buried next to his wife in a private family ceremony. In lieu of flowers, Mr. Ellis requested memorials be donated to: San Juan Preservation Trust, P.O. Box 327, Lopez, WA 98261; Lopez Island Medical Clinic, 103 Washburn Place, Lopez, WA 98261; Friends of the San Juans, P.O. Box 1344, Friday Harbor, WA 98250; or the Friday Harbor Laboratories, University of Washington, 620 University Road, Friday Harbor, WA 98250.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259