At age 24, Mae Nan Ellingson helped draft Montana’s Constitution. Since then she has led a struggling Missoula into the future
Published in 2007 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine
on June 21, 2007
Updated on February 23, 2016
The view from Mae Nan Ellingson’s sixth-floor office is to die for.
Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel, the two balding hills that frame Missoula’s eastern border, rise to meet the soaring windows. Below, the Clark Fork River cleaves Missoula in half, its banks rich with the hustle of a bustling little city that is home to the University of Montana, where Ellingson attended law school in the early 1970s.
Jumbo and Sentinel are marked with the striations of a glacial lake that once filled the valley, but they have Ellingson’s mark on them too. So do the banks of the Clark Fork in downtown Missoula, which had fallen into disrepair before urban renewal took hold in the 1980s.
Much of what you can see from Ellingson’s window is now in public hands, managed for the city’s residents and its wildlife. But it wasn’t always so. The hills faced an uncertain future that could have led to the same development that has eaten away at Missoula’s South Hills. Now they’re safe from development and central to the city’s viewshed.
The river, now so vital to Missoula’s reputation as a recreationist’s paradise, was once so polluted that people viewed it as a garbage dump. Now its banks are lined with parks, performance venues, trails and a native habitat display.
It’s difficult to overestimate the role that Ellingson played in making those things happen.
“When I came to cover the county, I kept hearing the same thing at every meeting: ‘What does Mae Nan think?’” says Rob Chaney, a reporter at the Missoulian. “It was clear that this was somebody who was pretty central to the way Missoula was coming to terms with its future. It’s really hard to think about a major public purchase that she didn’t shepherd through the system.”
Ellingson feels grateful just to have been part of Missoula’s growth.
“It is very meaningful to me to look out there today and see all the good things we’ve accomplished in our town,” says Ellingson, a partner with Dorsey & Whitney. “It’s certainly been an incredible journey for both me and Missoula since I showed up in the late 1960s.”
Ellingson grew up in Mineral Wells, Texas, one of eight children. Working as a car-hop in her parent’s restaurant, Jimmie’s Drive-In, she met Barry Robinson, a pilot who was teaching other officers how to handle a helicopter in wartime at nearby Fort Wolters.
“He’d been to Vietnam and then he came back to teach the young pilots,” she recalls. “But he was from Montana, and he’d wanted to get back.”
They married in the summer of 1967 and moved to Montana the next year. Ellingson had finished two years of community college and enrolled at the University of Montana for her junior year, studying history and political science in pursuit of her lifelong goal of teaching the subjects to high schoolers.
Robinson had worked as a smoke-jumper, but soon took a job in Alaska, mostly flying helicopters to offshore drilling rigs out of Anchorage. In January 1969, his chopper went down in Cook Inlet. His body was never recovered.
The 21-year-old Ellingson faced a choice: Missoula or Mineral Wells.
“I couldn’t really say that I thought that deeply about it,” she says. “You just aren’t able to see at the time what a huge decision that might be in your life, but it certainly turned out to be a good choice for me.”
The young widow returned to Missoula, finished her undergraduate degree and entered grad school to study political science. At about the same time, the citizens of Montana approved a convention to draft a new constitution.
A couple of Ellingson’s professors suggested she consider running as a delegate to the 1972 convention, and the idea took hold. “It was exactly what I had been studying with respect to state and local government, and I felt that I might have something to offer,” she says.
Ellingson, then 24, was the convention’s youngest delegate, but she proved an effective advocate. Beyond that, the convention revealed to Ellingson the overwhelming power lawyers wield in the public marketplace of ideas.
“It was a little unnerving to me, because so much credence was given to what lawyers said, even when it wasn’t necessarily more credible than what someone else was thinking,” she says. “What you could see was that the lawyers had a power that elevated their effectiveness.”
Other delegates thought that the convention’s youngest representative might make a fine lawyer. Dave Drum of Billings even offered to finance her education—an offer she at first declined but later accepted when she realized she was going to have a tough time supporting herself and her sister and brother on a $5,000 teacher’s salary.
Montana came away from the convention with an inspiring and progressive document that is still changing the state’s legal landscape by giving citizens the right to a clean and healthful environment, constitutionally securing equal rights for all and opening the doors of backrooms of government for all to see. Ellingson came away with a career.
Ellingson was one of six women in her University of Montana School of Law class of 70. During her second year of school, she married attorney Jon Ellingson (they later divorced). When time came to look for work, though, she encountered an unexpected reaction.
“Everyone was worried … I [would] talk about all my cases with my husband, so they were reluctant to hire me,” she says. “It was strange, but in a way, it really set me up for the next step.”
Ellingson hung her own shingle, did some lobbying and family law, and discovered her calling in a conversation with a couple of members of the Missoula City Council in 1977. “They urged me to come to work for the city, where I would do civil practice and advise the city council,” she says.
That particular city council was rapidly redefining civic activism in the West. Missoula, empowered by the new constitution, was changing from a timber town to a place with a little flair, and the council led the way.
“We had the first sign ordinance, we passed the first conservation bond, and we set up a tax-increment district that was designed to bring the downtown back to life,” Ellingson says. “We did some very, very exciting things with public finance. I felt very fortunate to have been part of all that.”
After six years, though, Ellingson felt the urge to move on. Dorsey & Whitney’s Bill Johnstone, who knew Ellingson through the firm’s work as bond counsel for Missoula, suggested Ellingson come work for them. “I told him it didn’t seem possible, primarily because they were headquartered in Minneapolis,” she says. But Johnstone was persistent, and Ellingson flew to Minnesota for a round of interviews. She returned with an offer that allowed her to work for the firm and remain in Missoula, with regular trips to the company’s small office in Great Falls.
“It was clear that she had a first-rate mind, a passion and enthusiasm for what she was doing,” says Johnstone, who is now the president and chief executive officer of Davidson Companies, a financial firm headquartered in Great Falls.
In 1985, Dorsey opened a Missoula office, where Ellingson has spent more than 20 years putting her fingerprints on nearly every public project financed by bonds in Montana.
“I’ve done everything from open-space purchases to sewer districts, and I have to say I’ve enjoyed all of it, primarily because you’re working with people who are looking to get something good done,” she says. “I just love being part of making those good things happen.”