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It was during his time as a student at Reed that Fred Ellis ’38 made his first trip to the San Juan Islands with his father. He was a sophomore that year (“I was a disaster in high school but Reed was the place for me—I just lapped it up there!”) and, after graduating, he would go on to save lives as a World War II medic with the British 18th Army Dagger Division in Burma (“that was a real eye-opener!”), make his way home from Calcutta on a freighter that mutinied (“that was fabulous!”), and join the board of the ACLU as a Harvard graduate student (“I had a ball!”).
But in 1936, he was just looking for an unspoiled place to moor a boat on a very foggy, rainy day. As he and his father entered the minuscule but idyllic Parks Bay on Shaw Island, the elder Ellis said, “This is just too good to let it ever get wrecked.” That seems to be the genesis of the family credo. It’s why Fred Ellis, now a retired professor, kept coming back to the islands, why he made Shaw Island his permanent home in 1946, always coming back for school holidays, and why he still fights to protect the open spaces, forests, habitats, and shorelines in the San Juan archipelago.
After the war, Ellis began buying property on Shaw Island; over the years since then, he has donated much of that land—unspoiled—to the San Juan Preservation Trust, which he helped found, and to the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.
“The planning director of Nantucket once told me, ‘Fred, it’s spinning out of control over here. See if you can get your act together over there in the San Juans.’” So when the market in builder’s lime went bust in the 1950s and the Orcas Lime Company halted its plans to log the area for cordwood and decimate Parks Bay, Ellis snapped up the property. Back then, he says, prices were laughably low. “Two hundred dollars an acre,” he marvels. “Sometimes even less.” Ellis and his wife continued to buy Shaw Island property as it came up for sale, either adding to the family holdings or placing conservation easements—which limit use and prevent development in perpetuity—before reselling.
Now, Ellis estimates that he owns or controls about one quarter of the 4,000-acre island, one of the quieter of the storied San Juan Islands north of Puget Sound. Parks Bay, the little inlet that Ellis and his father came upon in 1936, is now part of a conservation easement, which keeps it preserved; there isn’t even a road. “Whenever you put a road in, you start the destruction process,” Ellis says.
On a recent day, a heavy carpet of evergreens met the dark turquoise water, where three small yachts were quietly moored. Everything but the yachts, he exults, is just the way Captain Vancouver might have found it. The back of Ellis’ Volvo station wagon is stickered over with peppery political slogans. Through its windshield, he points out a collection of favorite trees (“isn’t this one huggable?”) and an alarmingly large paper yellow jacket nest (“isn’t that fabulous?”). “Fabulous” is possibly the descriptive word Ellis uses most.
Now that Ellis has turned 91, there’s a hearing aid, and a pacemaker keeps the aortic stent company—”doesn’t slow me down a bit!” His voice is a bit faded. But one doesn’t notice when his clear blue eyes keep checking to see if his listener gets the humor in one of his excellent tales.
“There’s too much to be done,” he declares. “Death is not an option.” Although, he adds, he wishes people would talk about death more. (That and sex.) He, meanwhile, has planned for it. He will be buried next to his wife, Marilyn, who died seven years ago, near a pond they created on Shaw Island.
Ellis’ own children and grandchildren will inherit the property by the pond, including the well-maintained compound of barn, lap pool, water tower, timber storage structure, and cabin. The cabin, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the jewel of the property, built in 1893 from hand-hewn timbers, the corners precisely dovetailed. The interior is like a living stage-set, cozy with a rough stone fireplace and beams across the low ceilings. Black-and-white photos show Ellis during his days as an energetic young military man and an earnest, clean-cut young father and professor. Color photos show a different persona, with a more relaxed, counterculture appearance, and sporting a fluffy white beard.
Should his family not want their inheritance, it will go to the San Juan Preservation Trust. And should the trust wind up defunct, the land will go to another organization, possibly the Nature Conservancy.
What won’t happen is the spoiling of his beloved San Juan Islands—“houses every fifty feet, docks stuck out, chain saws roaring away.” He’s been able to help save much of Lopez, San Juan, Blakely, and Cypress islands. He gets a lot done just by showing up to meetings: “They do listen to me, very much.”
In 2005, when over 1,500 acres on Orcas Island, including Turtleback Mountain, went up for sale, Ellis again spoke up. “Developers were just panting over it,” recalls Ellis. The price was $18.5 million—land sure wasn’t going for $200 an acre any more. An intense fundraising campaign resulted, and Turtleback Mountain will now be preserved in its natural state.
Tim Seifert, executive director of the San Juan Preservation Trust, says the undertaking was a real risk. “Fred stood up and appealed to the rest of the board, saying this was a key part of the islands and we’ve just got to do it. His voice was very influential.”
Reed runs in the Ellis family. His siblings—Henry Ellis ’34 and Robert Ellis Jr. ’37, both now deceased—went to Reed. His parents, Robert and Blanche Day Ellis, established a chair in political science, currently held by Dean of the Faculty Peter Steinberger. And Fred Ellis recently established a $320,000 charitable gift annuity to provide further support for a scholarship fund that his wife, Marilyn, created in her will.
Ellis follows the latest political machinations. He says he’s still waiting for sincere resistance to the policies of the Bush administration. Only recently has he come forward to describe the “underground railroad” to Canada that he and his wife set up for draft evaders determined to stay out of the Vietnam War. There were times when the job was horribly risky, and bus stations were “bristling” with cops. But Ellis knows about risks. He used to keep boxes of dynamite warm by storing them under the bed—“because dynamite won’t work if you let it get cold,” he chuckles conspiratorially. And he uses a walking stick because of a land mine he encountered in a village by the Irrawaddy River in Burma—“I was the lucky one: four officers and a native were blown to kingdom come,” he recounts.
Ellis’ most distilled advice is summed up in seven words inscribed on a stone bench next to a pond on Shaw Island: “Plant a tree and use a condom.” But today, he wants to share a quote from his hero, E.O. Wilson, professor emeritus of biology at Harvard: “Man will be defined not by what he has created, but rather by what he has chosen not to destroy.”
“It sends shivers down my spine,” Ellis murmurs. “Isn’t it fabulous?”
—L.D. Kirshenbaum ’84
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