Eulogy for Jim Ellis by Gary Locke

  • By Gary Locke
  • Posted 3/19/2020
  • Essay 20981
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This eulogy for Jim Ellis (1921-2019) was given by fomer Washington Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) on December 8, 2019 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. Ellis was a giant in the creation of modern Seattle. "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," historian Cassandra Tate wrote in her biography of Ellis on HistoryLink. "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." Seattle-born Gary Locke served two terms (1997-2005) as Washington's Governor and was the U.S. Ambassodor to China from 2011 to 2014.  

Jim Ellis, by Gary Locke

We swim in, and boat on, the Lake Washington he led the charge to clean up. We ride on the County wide Metro transit system he helped create. We picnic in and attend concerts at the many parks he established, like Luther Burbank, Marymoor, Discovery, and Gas Works Parks and the nearby Freeway Park. 

We have the Mariners and the Seahawks thanks the Old Kingdome they played in which Jim ushered in. We feed our families fresh produce from county farmlands he preserved. We hike along the trails amidst the working forests and parks that stretch along I-90 from just east of Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle that he helped transfer from private to public ownership. 

And we gather here today in the convention center whose construction, financing and expansions he oversaw and which helped revitalize Downtown Seattle.

When I was growing up, our grandparents and aunts in the mid-1950's would take us down to Leschi Beach or Mount Baker Beach to wade in the water. Mom would sometimes take us down to Seward Park if we helped her trim the edging of the backyard lawn -- in those days we used hand scissors; there were no weed wackers or powered edge trimmers! 

So the occasional closure of Lake Washington to swimming in the 1950's because of pollution was profoundly felt by my sisters and me. 

So in the sixth grade, when I had to choose a topic for a big report, I chose the cleanup of Lake Washington. I was fascinated by the articles in the Seattle Public Library detailing the huge pipes -- big enough to drive a truck through -- being laid to carry sewage from Seattle and communities around Lake Washington to water treatment plants before being discharged into Puget Sound. 

And that's when I first learned of Jim Ellis.

Never did I think I would ever get to meet him decades later or have the great pleasure of working with him to achieve just a few of his amazing visions of a better community for generations to come.

I finally met him in 1987 when I was in the State Legislature and he was the Chair of the Convention Center Board. The convention center was in the middle of construction but was in financial trouble. 

The private developer in the public private partnership that comprised the Convention Center had recently gone bankrupt and the bank that had taken over for the developer had itself gone insolvent. Costs for the project kept going up, with the state on the hook.  

Jim Ellis came to the Legislature in 1987 seeking additional albeit temporary state funding. The legislature was openly hostile. 

Some prominent senators accused Jim of fraud and called for a criminal grand jury investigation. 

I remember one meeting in the speaker's office attended by leaders of the Legislature and representatives of Governor Gardner. 

I was there as a representative of the chief budget writer of the House of Representatives. I think down deep I finagled my way in 'cuz I wanted to meet the man behind the project I wrote about some 25 years before. 

But there was Jim -- Father of Metro and Forward Thrust -- sprawled on the floor with blueprints of the Convention Center rolled out. 

He was excitedly pointing out the grand features of the Convention Center and how it would connect -- and heal -- parts of the city divided by the freeway and how the city and state would ultimately benefit.

The Legislature grudgingly gave Jim the bridge loan and I gladly volunteered to form a task force to study and audit the financial premises of the Convention Center.

We ultimately concluded that the public-private partnership was detrimental to the public interest and recommended instead, to Jim's delight, that the state take over full ownership and development of the Convention Center and that it be immediately expanded.

The terms of the expansion were actually negotiated on the back of a coffee coaster one night in the Sheraton Hotel café between Jim and me. 

I am not sure who was more nervous that night. 

The Legislature agreed to the extra cost of state ownership and expansion. And the rest is history -- with Jim serving on the Convention Center board for the next 15 years and helping it expand two more times!

I had the great fortune of working with Jim on two other projects in Olympia: The first was the renovation and sale of the Eagles Auditorium to ACT -- A Contemporary Theater. 

Much of the opposition to the Convention Center focused on the displacement of housing for seniors and others on fixed income.  

Jim was unfairly portrayed as not caring about the Center's impact on low-income housing. Critics overlooked that part of the $800 million in Forward Thrust bond measures that Jim shepherded in the late 1960's included tens of millions of dollars for low-income housing.  

That piece of Forward Thrust, along with rapid transit, was rejected by the voters. (BTW, $800 million Forward Thrust ballot measures in 1968 is the equivalent to $5.2 billion in today's money!) 

So with the Eagles Auditorium, Jim proposed that the development rights above the new ACT Theater be sold, thereby preserving the historic nature of the building, with the proceeds going to fund low-income housing. That was an easy sell to the Legislature.

The second was the Mountains to Sound Greenway. I was a participant in the inaugural multiday hike from Snoqualmie Pass to Elliott Bay. I remember Jim meeting all of the hikers at the celebration on the docks at the bottom of Yesler Way. 

He was so excited at our accomplishment and he laid out the vision of preserving from development the corridor of forests along I-90. 

Over the ensuing years, we at the state were able to place into public ownership thousands of acres of forest lands along the corridor by outright purchase or land swaps.

Whenever you encountered Jim, he had a boundless energy, an impatience, and humility. Whenever he pitched his projects or ideas -- such as when I was King County Executive: using sewage sludge from the Metro sewage treatment plants to fertilize the Mountains to Sound forest lands and to have Metro pay the Moutains to Sound Greenways to do so -- he had this almost uncontrollable excitement that captured and drew you in.

And nothing was beneath him. No task too dirty or menial -- like at the age of 75, crawling over the steel beams and girders and going through the rat-infested Eagles Auditorium to give me an in-depth tour of the Convention Center during construction!

Those are just some of the specifics to the legend of Jim Ellis.    

And while we know that it was not just all his doing -- that the accomplishments we attribute to him were the collective results of the visions, leadership, and hard work of so many other people, he was nonetheless the public champion and public voice. 

And when you look at the many great civic achievements of our region spanning more than 50 years beginning in the 1950's, he is the one constant in each and every decade. 

  • Cleanup of Lake Washington in the late 1950's and the creation of Metro;
  • Forward Thrust parks, pools, Kingdome, Seattle Aquarium in the 1960's;
  • Farmland preservation in the 1970's;
  • The Convention Center in the 1980's;
  • The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust in the 1990's.

And all these civic achievements were bold and costly initiatives that looked to the future and required engagement of skeptical voters who ultimately had to share and embrace that vision.

Jim's gift was always asking what we wanted our region to look like 20, 30, 40, years from now. And then following up by bringing people together to accomplish that vision. And he never stopped. His was engaged in a never-ending process of thinking of the future.

Unfortunately, so much of politics and corporate America today is focused on the here and now. The crises of the day or the next quarterly earnings.

We need more Jim Ellises dreaming of our future and developing an action plan to make it come true; anticipating and addressing the issues of tomorrow; and tackling the pressing problems of today with long-term solutions.

The problems today are different. Not so much infrastructure or preservation of lands but equally important to our future way of life and our community:

  • Climate change;
  • Affordable housing;
  • Civil discourse;
  • Income inequality; and
  • The disruptive impacts of technology.

We need more Jim Ellises with his imagination, tenacity, selflessness, and enthusiasm. Because it will take several to match the impact of the one Jim Ellis whose life we celebrate today. 

We are so blessed to have had him here in our community and our region for such a long time.

To the Ellis family: Thank you for loaning him to us. We are forever indebted to you all.

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