Jim Ellis on Oliver B. Thorgrimson

  • By Jim Ellis
  • Posted 3/19/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22685
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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 fellow lawyer and activist Oliver "O. B." Thorgrimson, whose civic contributions included stints as president of the Seattle School Board, the Seattle Municipal League, the Seattle Park Board, and the Seattle Arboretum Foundation. 

A Living Role Model

[Author's note: O. B. provided advice and encouragement during the course of my early law practice and public service work. He opened doors to the business establishment and mentored me on community service.]

Harold Preston’s longest law partnership was with Oliver Thorgrimson, who joined the firm as an associate in 1910 and became a partner two years later. Mr. Thorgrimson was still practicing when I arrived in 1949, and he soon became a living role model and teacher for me. He opened doors, gave advice, and proved to be a guiding influence for our twin goals of practicing law and performing public service.

Oliver Bernhard Thorgrimson (or O. B. as he was known) was born in Chicago on November 5, 1874, the son of Martin Ludwig Thorgrimson, who was born in Iceland, and Emily Helen Bell, who was born in New York. O. B. obtained his legal education at the University of Nebraska and was admitted to the Nebraska State Bar in June 1901. He immediately moved west to booming Seattle where he was admitted to the Washington State Bar.

O. B. became a lifelong resident of Seattle, practicing law with different partners until 1906. He married Myrtle Regina Gilkey on December 26, 1906, in Seattle, and together they raised their only offspring, Richard, who later became an important partner in the Preston firm.  

In 1906, the City of Seattle was in the midst of preparing to meet urgent demands for legal services created by major annexations and development following the Alaska Gold Rush and accompanying the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. From 1906 to 1910, O. B. served in the office of corporation counsel for the City of Seattle and in 1910 he resigned to join the Harold Preston law firm. Thereafter, he continued to expand his municipal reputation by serving as a member of the American Law Institute and becoming an early Chairman of the American Bar Association Section of Local Government Law. His opinion on the validity of bonds issued by Washington State and its local governments was nationally accepted. O. B. was retained to prepare proceedings for the first municipal revenue bonds issued in Washington state.

O. B. joined Harold Preston in 1910 and formed the Preston & Thorgrimson law partnership two years later. Leander Turner joined the firm in 1917 and the firm name was changed to Preston, Thorgrimson & Turner. After several stages it became Preston, Thorgrimson & Horowitz following Turner’s retirement.

When O. B. joined Harold Preston the office was moved from the Pioneer Building to the new Loman Building in the same Boston Block on Pioneer Square. When Leander Turner joined the firm, the office was moved upstairs to the ninth floor of the Loman Building. In 1929, the firm moved to the 20th floor of the newly constructed Northern Life Tower at Third and Seneca. The law partner relationship of Harold Preston and Oliver Thorgrimson was the longest for both men.

O. B. not only gained a national reputation for his knowledge of the law of municipal financial obligations, but he also became a respected legal advisor to the Seattle business community. He served as a director and chairman of the trust committee and member of the executive committee of Seattle Trust and Savings Bank; a director, member of the finance committee and general counsel for Northern Life Insurance Company, a vice president and director of Schwabacher Hardware Company, Bon Marche Realty, and McDermott Nordoff, Inc. 

In addition to being admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court in 1919, O. B. Thorgrimson was also able to be active in civic affairs. He served as a member of the Seattle School Board from 1923-1929 and its president in 1928; served as president of a thriving Seattle Municipal League in 1916, as well as a member of the Seattle Park Board for a number of years and its president in 1944. He was a member of the Seattle Arboretum Foundation board from 1934 to 1948 and served as its president in 1944. He also served on the advisory board of the National Arboretum. I wondered at the time how O. B. managed to find the time to successfully carry out all of these various responsibilities and still meet the demands of the practice of law.

During our few short years of working together, O. B. emphasized the importance of caution in practicing municipal finance law. He once said, "You can’t afford to be wrong if you’re giving opinions on bonds. Your opinion will be treated as a virtual warranty of payment by most bond purchasers."

On another occasion, he paused and said sternly, "Never risk your integrity. You only lose your integrity once." I remember these things because they came from such a respected source and because they fit my own instincts. O. B. was an admirer of Harold Preston and frequently used examples from Harold’s life experience as guidance on civic and legal issues. Some of the experience from my early "Thorgrimson" years opened doors to a growing municipal practice and O. B. gave me advice that turned out to be career-saving.

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