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A Lawyer With A Heart As Big As Montana: Mae Nan Ellingson
Montana Senior News, February/March 2014
The story behind how Mae Nan Ellingson came to be one of Montana’s most esteemed lawyers is inspiring enough to give any doubting Thomas faith in the American dream. Her road from almost-poverty to philanthropy, however, has been far from smooth.

“If you want something badly enough and work for it, you might get it,” says Mae Nan, whose gentle voice, if you listen carefully, still echoes her Lone Star State origins. “My successes have come from a lot of luck, helpful intervention, and hard work.”

Growing up in Central Texas, Mae Nan spent many a day cooking and carhopping at her parents’ drive-in restaurant, which provided a threadbare living for the family of ten. She worked after school, weekends, and holidays all the while keeping up her studies and receiving encouragement from teachers who nurtured her obvious potential.

“The circumstances under which I was raised, the importance of a helping hand, made me understand the value of an education. It was the only way to rise above my situation,” says Mae Nan, whose interest in politics and law emerged in her early Texas years.

 “In the eighth grade I was on the basketball team. When we traveled, I would sit in the front of the bus behind the coach and talk government,” she recalls. “Then in high school I was involved with the student council and elected student body president.”

It was while working at the family restaurant that Mae Nan met and married a Vietnam veteran from Bigfork, who was instructing future pilots at Fort Walters. She was 18. Upon his discharge they moved to Missoula where Mae Nan resumed her history studies and her husband resumed his former smoke-jumping job. A year later they relocated to Anchorage, where her husband flew helicopters to offshore drilling platforms. He was killed the next year after crashing in Cook Inlet.

Mae Nan decided to move back to Missoula and finish her undergraduate degree. She then received a teaching assistanceship and began working on her Masters Degree in political science. During that time period, elections were being held for delegates to rewrite Montana’s constitution. With the encouragement of Dr. Ellis Waldron, Mae Nan entered the race to represent Missoula County in Helena.

 “I’d only lived in Montana a few years and was just 24 but figured why not run? I knew a lot about the issues and worked and campaigned hard door-to-door,” says Mae Nan.

She was elected but within weeks her mother died leaving behind several of Mae Nan’s younger siblings. With the convention about a month away, she returned to Texas, became the legal guardian of an 8-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister, and brought them to Missoula in time to celebrate the Christmas of 1971.

Since the Constitutional Convention was convening in January, friends Patsy and Ted Lympus provided a weekday home for the kids so Mae Nan could attend the two-month convention and see her family on weekends. At the convention her future took yet another unexpected turn when delegate Marshall Murray of Kalispell told her he and several other delegates thought she should go to law school and offered to help financially.

“They recognized that I was articulate on the floor and made good arguments. Since they felt I had the capabilities and qualities to be a lawyer,” says Mae Nan, “I took the LSAT and passed on the first try.” Although she could not immediately accept the generous offer, one year later she was ready. Marshall Murray then put her in touch with Dave Drum, a delegate from Billings. “Dave was willing to go out on a limb and make a difference in my life by writing a check for $5,000,” says Mae Nan, who later reimbursed him and paid off her loans. Her first job out of law school was with the city attorney’s office in Missoula where she worked for six years. That eventually led to a 28-year stretch as a public finance lawyer for the firm Dorsey & Whitney.

“I’ve been surprised by how rewarding my career has been. I feel good about thinking that I’ve done positive work for the public. I’ve had the benefit of doing a lot of firsts—the first resort tax, the first revolving loan programs in Montana, the first self-insurance programs for municipalities, and the first bonds for open space,” recounts Mae Nan, who has relished solving infrastructure water and sidewalk problems as much as securing conservation easements so all can enjoy unfenced lands with postcard vistas.

“I feel very fortunate. I have gotten to live in Missoula and have a satisfying legal career that blended my interests in state and local government. I like everything about living in Missoula and its open accepting culture. It’s such a can-do community. When there’s a good idea that needs support people get behind it,” says Mae Nan, citing that Missoulians have recently raised the $1.6 million
needed for the Poverello Center—one of many Garden City projects she has championed.

This world-traveling grandmother describes herself as someone who is “game” whether tackling a tricky finance plan for a community or a complex Creole gumbo for a dinner party. A more apropos characterization would be hard to find.

“I have never doubted my ability to make a contribution whatever the circumstances. I’m not someone who just sits back,” she adds. “I want to do my share.”