NOTE FROM TIM: The Ellis Family’s Peerless Legacy

This quote, chiseled into the tombstone that stands above his final resting place on Shaw Island, tells you that Fred Ellis Sr. was a man of surprises:

“Mortality is the price we pay for sex.”

One of Fred’s many surprises may have been responsible for the Preservation Trust’s greatest single accomplishment, and yet another was delivered to us recently—long after he and Marilyn passed away.

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Marilyn and Fred’s gravestones | Staff archive

As author and former SJPT trustee Jonathan White detailed in the preface for the recent re-release of his book Talking on the Water, the San Juan Preservation Trust’s decision in 2006 to proceed with the purchase of Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island almost didn’t happen. With its $18.5 million price tag, we realized that we would have to pull off one of the most ambitious fundraising efforts ever undertaken for a land-conservation project in the Pacific Northwest. As Jonathan correctly notes, a significant number of our trustees felt that the risks were simply too high, and that accepting such a challenge “was fiscally irresponsible and could mean the end of the Trust.”

As the board debate raged on that day in a small room at the Orcas Hotel, Fred Ellis sat silently at one corner of the conference table. Almost 90 years old and hard of hearing, he had his hands cupped to his ears and both eyes closed as he strained to follow the spirited conversation. Just as an argument about the potential threat to SJPT’s organizational assets had reached a heated crescendo, Fred slapped both hands forcefully on the table, leaned forward in his chair, and—when he realized he had everyone’s attention—slowly uttered these seven short words in his high-pitched gravelly voice:

“I say we just GO FOR IT.”

The hands of a hero |  Photo: Jane K. Fox

Those would not have been the words I would have chosen to motivate this particular group, but at that moment Fred hit his mark. Someone else quickly followed up with a reminder that the Preservation Trust had been created to tackle challenges just like this one, and the conversation quickly turned from failure and organizational doom to risk mitigation and contingency planning. Of course Fred couldn’t hear any of this, so he pushed his chair away from the table, folded his arms, and smiled contently.

With Turtleback and a lifetime of dedicated conservation behind him, Fred passed away in 2010 at the age of 93 as he was serving his 30th year as a trustee for this organization. Since his death, we have been working closely with Fred and Marilyn Ellis’s children and grandchildren as they have sorted out the family estate. On the final day of 2017, after building upon many years of discussions, debates, false starts and friendships, we are pleased to accept the new Ellis Family Preserve on Shaw Island into our network of special island places.

Marilyn and Fred Ellis | Family photo

With this gift, Fred’s family has just made the single largest donation of land, measured in both acreage and dollar value, that the San Juan Preservation Trust has ever received. This represents a remarkable gesture to honor a parent’s wish to see his beloved homestead permanently protected by the organization that he loved. Even in his death, Fred Ellis’s legacy—including his land and his family—continues to surprise and inspire us.

One final note: Whenever I think of the Ellis family, I deeply regret that I never met Fred’s wife, Marilyn. She passed away in 2000, two years before I met Fred, so I never had the opportunity to speak with her about the dreams she held for their land. But judging from this inscription that is carved on her tombstone, which stands next to her husband’s marker, I feel safe in saying that she and Fred were cut from similar cloth:

“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

– Tim Seifert

 

Watch a video about the Ellis Family Preserve.