Jim Ellis on Ernie Conrad

  • By Jim Ellis
  • Posted 3/11/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22684
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Among his many achievements as a civic activist, Seattle attorney Jim Ellis (1921-2019) led the campaign to clean up Lake Washington, pushed for development of the Washington State Convention Center, and founded the Mountains to Sound Greeway Trust. In this excerpt from his memoirs, Ellis writes about Ernie Conrad (1914-1994), who served with Ellis on the University of Washington's Board of Regents in the 1970s.

Out of the Wheatfields

Ernest Matthew Conrad, or Ernie as he was known, was managing the university’s business and finance matters at the time Charles Odegaard came on the scene as President. Ernie became a key player in the group of four that met each morning in Charles’s office. Conrad was an immediate convert to Charles’s educational vision and became a creative partner in building the facilities of a "new university." Ernie’s daughters remember that he "worshipped" Charles and believed him to be a man of destiny for the university. When Charles first arrived, Ernie expressed to his family some concern about working for a new president. But this apprehension was quickly replaced by a genuine admiration and friendship that deepened each year and remained strong throughout their lives.

Ernie Conrad was born on March 17, 1914, in the tiny hamlet of Egypt among the wheat fields of Eastern Washington near Davenport. His mother died when he was 9 years old. His father was unable to keep all five children together, so Ernie was sent to live with relatives in Davenport, eventually graduating from Davenport High School.

At the age of 9, Ernie was kicked in the knee by a horse and a relative put him in bed to "let it heal." Doctors were later surprised that Ernie was able to walk without any lingering side effects. Following this mishap, Ernie’s family felt he wasn’t physically up to the farming life of his other siblings. Ernie chose a year of business school in Spokane and then headed across the Cascade Mountains to attend the University of Washington. He quickly became one of the leaders in the UW Class of 1940 and earned his way through college by washing dishes at the student co-op where he lived.

Ernie met his sweetheart Kathryn Jessie McArdle from Olympia while both were attending the university. Kathryn was beautiful, musically gifted, and paid her way through school by singing professionally at church and social events. Ernie and Kathryn were married August 19, 1939, at the University Lutheran Church in Seattle. After their marriage, the young couple worked and lived in the University District. From 1937 to 1944, Ernie was manager of the Student Cooperative Association at the UW. For many years, the Conrads rented an apartment in the basement of their home to UW students. All of these renters became lasting friends.

Hired at the U-Dub

In 1944, Ernie was hired by the University as assistant controller. Ernie rose through the ranks and finally became vice president for business and finance in 1963. He was serving in that capacity when I came on the Board of Regents.

When Ernie retired from his position as University Vice President of Business and Finance, reporter Julie Emery, assigned to the university for many years, described Ernie’s career in a well-written article titled "Playing His Cards Right" for the November 6, 1974, issue of The Seattle Times, summarized as follows:

"Ernest M. Conrad had not planned to play cards on his first day at work at the University of Washington in September 1944. But the noon hour came, and Conrad and his immediate superior went to lunch at the old Faculty Club. Conrad was asked if he played bridge. 'I said I played enough so that I knew what the cards looked like,' he recalled. A few minutes later Conrad found himself with a partner named Dr. Lee Paul Sieg, then the university’s president. 'Let’s just say I played my cards carefully,' Conrad remembered of the nerve-wracking session. Now, the 30-year veteran of campus administrative chores added, 'Where in the hell today can you get a job where on the first day you sit down and play cards with the president?'

"Conrad, some would say, has been playing his cards right ever since, having served seven university presidents, most recently as UW vice president for business and finance …

"Conrad wasn’t sure about his career choice during the early months on the job. 'In those days, all the checks at the university were hand-signed. I soon found out that this chore was one of the principal functions of the assistant controller. So, for the first two years I spent the first two or so hours of every day signing my name. I wondered what kind of a mess I’d gotten myself into.

"... Conrad proudly points out that in all of the decades of property acquisitions, only once did the university exercise its right of condemnation, and 'we settled that out of court.' Conrad estimates that some 50 to 60 acres were added to the main campus during his tenure.

"Why doesn’t the university sell the Metropolitan Tract, source of controversy and a project that is only indirectly related to education? One answer is that it is an asset burgeoning in value, he said. Conrad estimated the property, worth about $25 million in 1954, now has an assessed value of some $65 million in 1974. The total income to the university from 1904 to 1954 was only $3.9 million, he observed. But from 1954 through 1973, the property brought in roughly $53 million of which $22 million eventually went back to the campus, he said.

“'It’s a good investment,' Conrad said, noting that the total rental income last year was $4 million, of which $1 million went back to university coffers for campus capital expansion.

"A student leader pointed out that Conrad has earned the reputation of being the 'watchdog of the state dollar,' insisting that every cent go for its proper purpose. A few years ago, when a number of administrators were taking leaves, Conrad turned his down. It was all above board with outside funding, but Conrad 'didn’t think the legislators would swallow the idea of an administrator’s three-month sabbatical.'

"As a UW student, Conrad served on the board of directors of the old Student Cooperative Association. After receiving his degree in 1940, he took over the manager’s job. 'It had $400 in the bank, $4,000 in accounts receivable, an old Dodge truck and not much else,' he recalled of the cooperative. 'There were $20,000 in liabilities, and the creditors were concerned.'

"In four years, Conrad had whipped the association back into respectable shape. 'Business had increased from $40,000 to almost $300,000 a year. All the bills were paid off and we had bought a lot of property in the district. We also had $45,000 in the bank.'

"And that is how Conrad, 60, who washed pots and pans in the kitchen as a university freshman, has been going ever since.”

Ernie made far-sighted purchases of key properties for university expansion and hired the first university architect to oversee planning and design of new campus facilities. Ernie fought to preserve the beauty of the 60-acre working campus, while finding room for the buildings of Charles’ "new university." To keep the landscape free of unsightly electrical wires and to provide easy access for future growth and maintenance, Ernie built a complete system of large underground utility and maintenance tunnels. A manhole cover with his name on it is still there and he often said, that upon his death, his ghost would still be walking through those tunnels.

Friend and Teacher

Ernie was genuinely interested in people. He would often work on Sundays in the administration building and take his young daughter Kathy with him. She recalls walking together through the building garage where her father would stop to talk with janitors and introduce them to her. Ernie knew most of the people by name at all levels of administration and maintenance and he was known for taking a genuine interest in their families. Kathy recalls, "When our family went out to dinner, we would leave the restaurant knowing a lot about the waitress.

Unlike most administrators, Ernie spent a lot of time at the Husky Union Building (HUB) with student body officers. He felt it was important to know what students were thinking and to understand how they would react to changes in university policies and facilities. Over time, Ernie’s frequent contact with students and his genuine interest in their concerns built understanding between student leadership and the administration. Former ASUW President Chris Pearson wrote the following letter to the Alumni Magazine after Ernie’s death:

"Late one afternoon business and finance vice president, Ernie Conrad, made his usual journey into the HUB to welcome the new ASUW president. I was floored, who was this old geezer and what was he doing here? He displayed the character of a genius and a saint that cared and could easily laugh at his mistakes.

"He was a teacher. We walked back to the administration building where Conrad stopped inside the main entrance to have a chat with a gentleman waxing the floor. He asked that janitor about members of his family. Conrad then turned to me and said, 'Remember, everyone is just as important to themselves as you are to yourself.' There’s a lot more I could say about him ... quiet wisdom, hard work, and honesty ... goodbye Uncle Ernie, thank you.”

The bond between Ernie and his many student friends proved to be critically valuable during the coming times of campus tension. Ernie wore the love he had for the university on his sleeve and students and employees trusted him completely.

During the 1960s, Ernie sensed a growing communication gap between the regents and university president on one hand, and the campus population of teachers, students, and employees. While Charles and the regents were focusing on achieving their progressive vision for a new university, most students and their parents were thinking more about the growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the activation of a military draft for men between 18 and 26 years of age. Ernie’s personal touch became a trusted connector between people on campus who held opposing views during the turbulent Vietnam years.

In later years, the Conrads built a summer place near the town of Hansville, located across Puget Sound in Kitsap County. They often invited student body officers for visits to relax and talk about whatever was on their minds. When Ernie died in 1994, a necessary requirement for any student receiving an Ernest M. Conrad Memorial Scholarship was that the recipient be active in UW student government.

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