James Reed “Jim” Ellis never held elected office in his 98 years, but his legacy as a citizen — cleaning up Lake Washington and preserving public land for King County residents — rivals that of some of King County’s most accomplished officials.

Mr. Ellis died in his Bellevue home Tuesday, after spending his final evening surrounded by family, said his son, Robert Ellis.

“He was a tremendous family man; he was a community leader and visionary,” Robert Ellis said of his father. “He was totally focused on this community. It was his life.”

Mr. Ellis led the charge to clean up Lake Washington in the 1950s; sparked the formation of King County Metro that earned him the moniker “Father of Metro” in the 1960s; and drove “Forward Thrust,” a series of bond measures to fund highway improvements and public amenities including the Kingdome, fire departments, parks and trails, public swimming pools and a youth service center.

He encouraged development of the convention center in downtown Seattle and founded the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving 1.5 million acres of land — most of it public — around the Interstate 90 corridor between Seattle and Ellensburg.

Despite his interest in civic issues, Mr. Ellis was never interested in running for office, his friends and family said.

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“He didn’t look for credit, he didn’t look for notoriety, he didn’t look for anything other than to get the job done,” said former Gov. Dan Evans. “He was a contributor to the very best of what we have now in our community.”

Early life

Mr. Ellis was born on Aug. 5, 1921 in Oakland, California, and was the eldest of three children. His mother, Hazel Reed Ellis, grew up in Spokane and was a housewife. His father, Floyd Ellis, was a native of Dayton, Washington, and worked in the import-export business. 

After a few years in California, his family returned to Washington state, settling in Seattle’s Lakewood neighborhood. Mr. Ellis, along with his brothers John and Robert, attended Franklin High School.

Mr. Ellis went on to Yale University and enlisted in the military his senior year, along with his brother Robert, after the United States entered World War II. Mr. Ellis was accepted into the Army Air Corps and the two brothers were called to duty on the same day in March 1943.

In the summer of 1942, just after graduating from college, he fell in love with Mary Lou Earling, the daughter of a mining engineer in Alaska and the granddaughter of a respected Bainbridge Island and Bremerton businessman. They were married in 1944.

Robert died in the war the next year, which devastated Mr. Ellis. He at first vowed to fight in his honor, but his wife encouraged him to focus on making the community better in Robert’s memory.

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Mr. Ellis received a law degree from the University of Washington and joined one of Seattle’s top legal firms, Preston, Thorgrimson & Horowitz, known for municipal bond work. Mr. Ellis became a partner and merged his firm with that of William Gates Sr., father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

The Ellises had four children together: Robert Lee Ellis II, Lynn Earling Erickson, Steven Reed Ellis and Judy, who was killed in a car crash. Mary Lou Ellis died in 1983, at the age of 62.

Foray into civic life

Mr. Ellis’ first foray into civic matters came in 1952, when he was tasked with helping to revise the King County charter. When that effort failed, he turned to cleaning up Lake Washington, which was polluted with sewage and unsafe for swimming.

“The lake was like split-pea soup,” said Richard Sandaas, executive director of Metro from 1988 to 1993.

Mr. Ellis’ solution was to create a regional agency, the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, to focus on issues like sewage pollution that required a regional response. With voter approval in 1958, Metro coordinated a sewage system that no longer spilled sewage into the lake.

In 1960, the Seattle-King County Municipal League named Ellis an “outstanding citizen” and went on to elect him its president twice. He served as general counsel for Metro for about two decades and was the chairman of the metropolitan government committee of the American Bar Association. He was also a regent of the University of Washington for 12 years.

Mr. Ellis was known as a “visionary,” but was also dedicated to doing the grunt work, Sandaas said. He worked weekends and took on practical matters, like editing minutes, scheduling meeting rooms and planning monthly dinners, Sandaas said. And despite his success, he didn’t engage in partisan politics.

In fact, he turned down an offer from President Richard Nixon to become the first director of the Environmental Protection Agency, thinking he would be more useful in Washington state.

“My suspicion is that some of these politicians were jealous and a bit fearful of Jim,” Sandaas said. “He was so successful. He was a citizen. He wasn’t elected.”

‘Father of Metro’

Preparing for the region’s impending growth, Mr. Ellis worked with others to create a vision for the future called Forward Thrust. They put initiatives, including one for a transit system, on the 1968 ballot. It was the first time in half a century that Seattle-area voters had considered a subway since a grand plan by city engineer Virgil Bogue lost in 1912.

King County voters in 1968 approved paying for highway improvements and other public amenities, but rejected a plan that would have built a 47-mile rail system. Taxpayers would have footed $385 million of the bill, with the federal government paying about $800 million.

The Forward Thrust committee made a second attempt in 1970 to rally public support for rail transit, but voters again rejected the effort, and the federal money went to Atlanta.

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In an interview with the HistoryLink, an online encyclopedia of Washington history, Mr. Ellis said he thought these early transit measures would have built a better system than Sound Transit’s current light-rail system.

In 1972, Mr. Ellis decided to try to raise the sales tax, not property taxes, for a bus-only system, rather than rail and bus. It passed, launching what would become King County Metro.

“He poured himself into every one of these causes and every one of these elections — on the phone, lining up editorial support, lining up politicians, persuading people in the private sector,” said Richard Page, who directed the Forward Thrust program and went on to lead Metro in the 1970s.

Mountains to Sound Greenway

In 1991, Mr. Ellis focused his efforts on conserving land and trails for the public by forming a nonprofit, the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.

It successfully created a permanent greenway from the Puget Sound to the Kittitas foothills along the I-90 corridor.

“The scale of the task is enough to challenge anyone. Indeed, some say it is more than can be practically done,” Mr. Ellis said in a 1992 speech to the Downtown Seattle Rotary Club. “The longer we work on this dream, the more opportunities we find for doable tasks, for practical projects, for broad participation and for win-win solutions.”

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Through all his efforts, Mr. Ellis maintained this personal philosophy: Spend one-third of your time on work, one-third with your family and one-third serving the community.

“I don’t like the ‘I’ word,” Mr. Ellis told The Seattle Times in 2013. He said his accomplishments “were very much a committee thing. It’s fascinating to see how everything we’ve undertaken … has met expectations and is serving us well today.”

Information about funeral arrangements could not be confirmed Tuesday evening.

Staff reporter Asia Fields contributed to this story.

Correction: Jim Ellis died early Tuesday, not Monday as previously reported. We regret the error.