Jim Ellis: A Will to Serve

May 28, 2024 at 8:48 a.m.
Jim Ellis, citizen activist, worked to establish King County Metro, to clean up Lake Washington, support Forward Thrush initiatives, create the Mountain to Sound Greenway and Washington State Convention Center. His new book is "A Will to Serve"
Jim Ellis, citizen activist, worked to establish King County Metro, to clean up Lake Washington, support Forward Thrush initiatives, create the Mountain to Sound Greenway and Washington State Convention Center. His new book is "A Will to Serve"

When Jim Ellis died in 2019, The Seattle Times described him as "one of [Washington's] most visionary and successful civic leaders." From the establishment of King County Metro to the clean-up of Lake Washington and the success of other voter mandated Forward Thrust initiatives he inspired, Ellis was about acting on a civic vision. That inspiration helped create the Mountain to Sound Greenway and the Washington State Convention Center. He brought leaders together across political divides and found consensus. 

A new book about Jim Ellis' life has been published: A Will to Serve. The inspiration behind his remarkable contributions to civic life is so very touching. 

Jim Ellis, photo courtesy HistoryLink.org


Jim Ellis was born in Oakland, California in 1921, but became a Seattleite at the age of two when his family moved to Washington. When he was 15, his father taught him and his younger brother Bob the art of self-sufficiency by dropping them off on five acres of woodlands that he owned near Preston. While the youngest brother, 8-year-old John, stayed home with their parents, Bob and Jim were told to build a cabin, and by the end of the summer the boys had completed the task.

After enlisting in the military on the day after Pearl Harbor, Bob was sent to fight in Europe while Jim was told by the Air Force to complete his studies at Yale. He graduated in 1942, married, and was stationed at an Air Force base in Idaho. When Bob was killed less than three months before the end of the war in Europe, Jim was devastated. To ease his grief, his wife, Mary Lou, suggested that he consider "doing something extra" in his own life to make up for what his brother might have done if he had lived. Jim took this to heart, and it became the driving force in his efforts to better the public good.

After receiving a law degree from UW in 1948, Ellis joined the law firm of Preston, Thorgrimson and Horowitz (later Preston, Gates & Ellis). He vowed to devote a quarter of his time to public service in honor of his brother, and he joined the Municipal League. After a failed attempt to draft a new King County charter, he reapplied himself to what he considered his greatest contribution to civic life, the creation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle – Metro – and the cleanup of the badly polluted Lake Washington.

After that success – which earned him the nickname "father of Metro" – Ellis spearheaded the campaign to create Forward Thrust, an ambitious slate of bond-funded capital improvements, and sell it to the public. In 1968, voters said 'yes' to seven of the proposals. Among them were measures to build a $40 million domed stadium, the Seattle Aquarium, and 25 county swimming pools. One of the propositions set aside $118 million to develop new parks and trails, and voters also approved bonds to improve Woodland Park Zoo.

A transit measure that would have provided a rapid light-rail system for the county was supported by only 50.8 percent of the voters, and 60 percent was needed. Ellis and transit backers resubmitted it two years later, but by that time an 'economic downturn' soured any hopes for public approval. Nevertheless, the DNA of his proposal was still present decades later in the creation of Sound Transit and voter-approved funding for light rail.

In 1979 Ellis championed a successful farmlands preservation bond, then turned his attention to the construction and later expansion of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. In 1990 he became chair of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, which has protected and preserved nearly 1.5 million acres of land along the I-90 corridor from Puget Sound to Ellensburg. In 2019 the greenway was designated a National Heritage Area. Ellis (who died later that year) felt that of all the projects he was involved in, this one would be the closest to his brother Bob's heart.

This article is courtesy of HistoryLink.org, the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history. Below read about the free book launch event featuring speakers such as Sally Jewell, former Secretary of the Interior and Gary Locke, former Washington State Governor and US Ambassador to China.

* * * * *

HistoryLink.org, the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history, and Seattle Public Library invite you to attend the free book launch and panel discussion of Jim Ellis' new autobiography, A Will to Serve.

This free event takes place on Sunday, June 2 from 2 to 3:3pm at Seattle Public Library's Central Library, 1000 4th Avenue South.

A Will to Serve: Stories of Patience, Persistence and Friends Made Along the Way details Jim Ellis' work as a citizen activist. He never held public office or headed a major corporation, but he left a bigger footprint on Seattle and King County than perhaps any other single individual. His vision drove major projects that are now fixtures in our lives...

The event will include a panel discussion about the influence of Jim Ellis on our region and his relevance today. Panelists will include:

  • Sally Jewell - Secretary of the Interior during the Obama administration and a longtime advocate of environmental conservation
  • Gary Locke - Governor of the State of Washington and later, US Ambassador to China during the Obama administration
  • Eric Liu - CEO and Co-Founder of Citizen University, and long-time civic activist
  • Girmay Zahilay - member of the King County Council, lawyer and community leader.

HistoryLink began the Jim Ellis project many years ago when his family gave the folks at HistoryLink permission to read Jim Ellis' autobiography. The book evolved into a project that includes remembrances by Jim Ellis on HistoryLink, new articles, a partnership with the Seattle Public Library Special Collections to make the archive available to all, and the publication of his book. 

This event is meant to promote Jim Ellis' accomplishments and share his philosophy with a new generation of leaders. 

To reserve your spot at this free event, visit the following link: Book Launch for 'A Will to Serve' by Jim Ellis Tickets, Sun, Jun 2, 2024 at 2:00 PM | Eventbrite 

Share this story!