Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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"Now and again there comes a man among us who stands tall; tall not only in his physical bearing but tall in his ideas and ideals; tall in his understanding and compassion; tall in his spiritual growth. Such a man was Justice Arthur Ells." These words of William B. Bryant, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Litchfield, delivered at the memorial service for Judge Ells, felicitously bring to mind my closest and dearest friend. He was indeed a grand man and wonderful friend.
Arthur Fairbanks Ells was born December 17, 1879, in Norwalk, Connecticut, the son of George Nelson and Lucy Ann Fairbanks Ells. While he was still of tender age, the family moved to Waterbury, where he resided until some forty years ago, when Litchfield became the family home. He died in Litchfield on December 8, 1963, after a brief illness.
On June 14, 1906, he married Dorothea Gross. Two children were born of this marriage: Jonathan Fairbanks Ells and Eleanor Bradley Ells. Jonathan is now a leading lawyer in Winsted; Eleanor is the wife of Kendall Murray Barney of Avon. Subsequent to the death of the first Mrs. Ells, Judge Ells married Ruth Thoms of Waterbury on December 16, 1919. There were two daughters by this marriage: Ruth Whitney Ells, now Mrs. Ira Lesser of New York City, and Nancy Fairbanks Ells, now Mrs. Matthew P. Terry of Hingham, Massachusetts. After the death of his second wife, Judge Ells, on June 20, 1936, married Martha Lewis Fischer of New Haven. They had as their only child Theodore Fischer Ells, who was graduated in June, 1964, from the University of Virginia Law School. Judge Ells's widow, Mrs. Martha Fischer Ells, his five children, ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren survive.
After graduating from Worcester Academy in 1898, Judge Ells entered Amherst College, from which he was graduated in 1902 with a B.S. degree. In 1943, he was awarded the honorary LL.D. degree by Amherst. After completing two years at the Harvard Law School, he was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1906. He began the practice of law in Waterbury and soon became a member of the firm of Thoms, Ells and Hincks. Among the official positions he held during his practice in Waterbury were prosecutor of the District Court, judge of the Probate Court for the district of Waterbury, state senator of the fifteenth district in 1923, and chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, colonel on Governor Charles A. Templeton's staff, and judge advocate general.
He served as a judge of the Superior Court from June 30, 1923, until May 7, 1940, when he became an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Errors. He continued as a member of that court until December 17, 1949, when he retired pursuant to the constitutional provision, having reached the age of seventy. He then became a state referee.
Incident to his life as a lawyer, Judge Ells was a member of the American Bar Association as well as of his county and state bar associations. He also belonged to the American Law Institute and the American Judicature Society and served for a time as a member of the Connecticut Judicial Council. By reason of his knowledge of the law and extensive experience, Judge Ells was appointed by the governor as a member of the Connecticut Highway Safety Commission and served from 1941 to 1947 as its chairman. The large number of other organizations to which he belonged and of the boards of which he was a member, while no part of his judicial career, demonstrates the breadth of his interests and activities. Among these were clubs, cultural societies, financial corporations, educational institutions and his church.
Judge Ells loved people and people loved him. He was always a welcome member of the Graduates Club Association in New Haven. Here, particularly during our years of circuit duty on the Superior Court, his fellow judges at luncheon delighted in his comments and gentle humor embellishing "the day's occupation." He was especially pleased to narrate amusing incidents where the joke was on himself.
His active membership in the Appalachian Mountain Club for a number of years afforded him and many of his fellow members great satisfaction. He was long a leader in the Connecticut chapter and during the year 1945 was vice president of the entire organization, which has its headquarters in Boston. The Judge truly was a real devotee of the great out-of-doors, whether sailing on a saltwater cruise, paddling a canoe on lake or stream, hiking the mountain trail or settling in for a fireside meal and a sleeping bag in some woodland camp. He was then at his best and certain, in his own quiet manner, to be the "life of the party." In his later years he came to enjoy the more subdued associations of the revered Sanctum Club of Litchfield gentlemen. At its periodic dinners, Judge Ells particularly enjoyed the exchange of views and experiences with the other senior leaders of the community. He was for many years an active participant in forwarding the recreational and cultural interests of Litchfield, serving as a trustee of the White Memorial Foundation, with its beautiful natural park areas, and also as president of the Litchfield Historical Association. He also was identified with two of Litchfield's financial corporations. He was a trustee of the Litchfield Mutual Fire Insurance Company and a director of the Litchfield Savings Bank.
As an alumnus, Judge Ells rendered valuable assistance in promoting the best interests of two of the educational institutions which he had attended. He was for a time a member of the board of trustees of Worcester Academy. He served as president of the Amherst College Alumni Association from 1948 to 1951, as chairman of the board of trustees of Amherst College from 1951 to 1956, and as a life trustee beginning in 1951, becoming trustee emeritus in 1959. While an undergraduate at Amherst, he joined the Amherst chapter of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and became its president. Amherst College was always dear to the heart of Judge Ells, and it was a source of well-deserved pride and satisfaction to him to have both of his sons, Jonathan Fairbanks Ells and Theodore Fischer Ells, graduated from Amherst in the course of their education to succeed him as members of the Connecticut bar.
Judge Ells was a sincere and earnest Christian. Blessed by having been brought up in a true New England Christian home, he had been an active member of his church from his youth. While living in Waterbury, he was for many years a deacon of the First Congregational Church of Waterbury. After his removal to Litchfield, he became a member of the First Congregational Church of Litchfield and a regular attendant and supporter of its activities. Judge Ells had exceptional ability as a speaker. His ready wit and clearly expressed thoughts brought him great popularity in addressing gatherings of bench and bar and also various civic and other groups. On occasion, when the pastor of his church was absent, he was called upon by the congregation to occupy the pulpit in the pastor's place.
As already stated, Judge Ells's service on the higher courts of Connecticut embraced two periods; one of seventeen years as a trial judge of the Superior Court, and one of nine years as an appellate justice on the Supreme Court of Errors. This total of twenty-six years' service offers a somewhat unusual opportunity to appraise his ability as a judge. In his judicial gown, standing six feet four inches in height, with a face of strong and regular features, he was an impressive figure. With a natural dignity of manner and a clear but moderate voice, he was a person who inspired respect. Learned in the law as he was, these attributes, coupled with an active and inquiring mind, yet endowed with a sympathetic attitude and ample patience withal, presented to lawyer and litigant alike a well-nigh ideal judge. It was small wonder, therefore, that he was popular and highly regarded by the bar. His resulting broad and busy experience on the trial bench gave him the practical familiarity with the essentials of trial court proceedings and procedure which is such a very important asset for the members of every appellate court.
When Judge Ells, possessed of the qualities just recited, undertook his new work on the appellate court, it was to be expected that he would prove a successful and valuable member of it, and he did. As a justice of the Supreme Court of Errors, he participated in 1073 decisions. Of these, he wrote the majority opinion in 189 cases and a dissenting opinion in 6, and dissented without opinion in 23. His opinions manifest a gift and facility of expression which render them distinctive. They are lucid and reflect the quality of mind and clarity of the writer's mental processes. He used to say concerning the writing of opinions; "Do the ground work at your desk half of each day, and let it crystallize somewhere else, out in the open, the other half." His keen perception, cushioned by his gracious personality and friendship for his associates, brought attentive response when it became a part of his duty to comment upon the opinions which they wrote.
It requires a thoroughly good man to make in the best sense a really good judge. Judge Ells was such a man and such a judge. He was a man of true Christian character and integrity. He was a man of wisdom trained and learned in the law. He was a man possessed of true judicial temperament, being calm, quiet, thoughtful and deliberate. These fundamental qualities were complimented by significant further traits. He was courteous, impartial, conscientious, studious and patient, but firm with a strong sense of justice. He was possessed of a gracious and genial nature and a keen sense of humor. He was sincere and sympathetic and inspired by high ideals. He was the truest and sincerest of friends, even to the point of poignant sacrifice. It was the combination of all of these qualities which made Judge Ells the man he was and rendered possible his long life of service to mankind. After his retirement as a justice of the Supreme Court in 1949, he continued active as a state referee for fourteen years, until his death within nine days of the age of eighty-four in 1963.
During my earlier years on the trial bench, occasionally I had the opportunity of bringing some of the lawyers or my fellow judges, when they were in Norwich, to call upon my then invalid mother. She liked them all, but I often recall her remark, made to me after Judge Ells's first call upon her: "Allyn, he is the Noblest Roman of them all!"