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Rep. Rory Ellinger: Civil Rights Activist, Attorney Fought For ‘Vulnerable And Powerless'

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During the late 1950s, Rory Ellinger, a high school student at Bishop Du Bourg, had a job as a checker at Kroger’s. During a lunch break, he became transfixed by people picketing the nearby Woolworth’s over dining practices.

“Blacks could only order food to go out,” he recalled in the 1999 book, A Generation Divided. “If you were black, you came in and they served you in a bag and you had to leave.”

He joined the NAACP picket line. It was the prelude to a life defined by the civil rights movement.

Democratic state Rep. Ellinger, who never lost the zeal that thrust him into activism, died at his home in University today, April 9, of a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer. A longtime resident of University City, he was 72.

Services are being planned for Saturday afternoon at the Ethical Society.

A man of modest stature and matching demeanor, he briefly served as a bodyguard for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was arrested three times during protests.

Late in life, Rep. Ellinger channeled his activism into elected office, becoming known as Missouri’s most liberal legislator. In between, he became a “country lawyer,” always with one foot firmly planted in the social struggle.

When his illness caused him to withdraw from his re-election campaign last month, he said: “I hope that whomever is chosen by the voters will carry on my commitment to helping the vulnerable and the powerless, to addressing issues of injustice and unfairness, and to representing the needs of all Missourians.”

No regrets

In 2009, Rep. Ellinger, who ran unsuccessfully for the statehouse in the late ‘60s, lamented his chances for higher office.

“I always wanted to be more active in politics,” he told the St. Louis Business Journal. “But because this is a conservative state, I think the school board is probably the limit of my political aspirations.”

A year later, he won a contentious 2010 primary and was later elected state representative of District 86, which encompasses parts of Pagedale, University City and Wellston in St. Louis County.

He quickly earned a reputation for being the state’s most liberal legislator, pursuing seemingly hopeless causes in the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly.

He said he was not merely tilting at windmills.

As evidence, he cited the narrow defeat last summer of an attempt to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a tax-cut bill that he said amounted to “bankrupting public education.”

“When votes on legislation have razor-thin margins,” he told St. Louis Public Radio, “each individual vote becomes more, not less important.”

He sponsored or co-sponsored numerous bills, burnishing his liberal bona fides with two that may have been the most unpopular ever introduced in the state: an assault weapons ban and marijuana reform.

The gun control bill garnered calls for his impeachment. A YouTube video showed the bill being used for target practice. Undaunted, Rep. Ellinger followed up with legislation to legalize marijuana.

In all efforts, he displayed a quiet dignity and dogged persistence.

Rep. Ellinger leans over to confer with Rep. Jay Barnes, a Republican from Jefferson City.
Credit Rep. Barnes
Rep. Ellinger leans over to confer with Rep. Jay Barnes, a Republican from Jefferson City.

Republican Rep. Jay Barnes of Jefferson City, recently expressed his admiration for his colleague’s powers of persuasion. He recalled Rep. Ellinger’s debate against a bill that would have required families to prove gross negligence, rather than just negligence, in lawsuits over inmate suicides.

“He changed my mind on the bill,” Barnes said. “He must have changed dozens of minds on the bill.” It barely passed the House, but never made it to the Senate floor for debate and never became law.

Militant to lawyer

Before becoming a lawyer and eventually a lawmaker, Rep. Ellinger was part of the turbulence that was the 1960’s.

Following graduation from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1963, he joined the Chicago staff of Young Christian Students, an activist Catholic group working with King. He organized peace and civil rights groups in Boston and Cleveland, working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). 

Civil disobedience landed him in jail three times: in Chicago, Boston and in 1965, in Alabama, during the dangerous Selma to Montgomery march for African-American voting rights.

He briefly served as King’s bodyguard in 1966, before heading to the University of Missouri-Columbia for his master’s degree and the presidency of Students for a Democratic Society. The organization sprang up on college campuses throughout the U.S., primarily in protest of the Vietnam War. It spawned the notorious Weather Underground, which bombed several facilities.

“Ours was the nonviolent wing (of the SDS),” Rep. Ellinger told the Business Journal. “I completed a lot of protests and got everything but my graduate degree in history.”

Rep. Ellinger (right) with former Gov. Bob Holden
Credit Ellinger campaign wesite
Rep. Ellinger (right) with former Gov. Bob Holden

After receiving his master’s, he stayed on in Columbia, working as then-Lt. Gov. Thomas F. Eagleton’s press secretary and subsequently on Eagleton’s successful first campaign for U.S. senator. (He wrote a tribute, "Memories of Tom Eagleton" for the St. Louis Beacon.) He later served as campaign manager for James G. Baker, who ran unsuccessfully for Missouri attorney general against John Ashcroft in 1976. For a time, Rep. Ellinger was a lobbyist for the Missouri Association for Social Welfare.

He was 35 when he returned to school for the graduate degree he’d postponed in favor of social protest. After receiving his law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Rep. Ellinger became a staff attorney for the Missouri Public Service Commission.

In 1980, he married Linda Locke and they moved to the Hannibal area, where Mr. Ellinger became the founding director of Legal Services for Northeast Missouri. There he led the successful effort to integrate the Kirksville Fire Department and secured equal treatment of minority students in Clark County schools. He and his wife helped elect Hannibal’s first African-American city council member.

In the mid-‘80s, he and his family moved back to the St. Louis area. He worked as an associate attorney with several firms before setting up shop as Ellinger & Associates in 1991. Rep. Ellinger, who prided himself on handling the legal problems of “average” families, successfully argued cases before the Missouri Court of Appeals, the Missouri Supreme Court and the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Life of service

Rory Vincent Ellinger, born June 13, 1941, grew up in Webster Groves in a liberal Catholic household. His mother, Lois Kelley Ellinger, was a longtime Republican committeewoman, and his father, Russell Ellinger, was president of Ellinger Store Equipment. Both died when he was 24.

Rep. Ellinger was elected to the University City School Board in 1991. He served 12 years, including 10 years in leadership roles. He was legal counsel for the NAACP of St. Charles County, where his law firm is located, and treasurer and secretary of the St. Charles County Bar Association.

His allegiances spanned the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Crider Health Center, the University City Land Clearance for Redevelopment Commission and the Ethical Society of St. Louis. He served on the United Way of Greater St. Louis’ Low-Income Housing Committee and was president of the Musick Neighborhood Association.

Three successive Democratic governors appointed Rep. Ellinger to serve on commissions. He was appointed by Gov. Mel Carnahan to the Missouri Foundation for Health, by Gov. Bob Holden to the State Welfare to Work Commission and by Gov. Nixon to the Commission on State Medical Certificate of Need.

Among his many honors were the Martin Luther King Award from the University City School District and the Legal Distinction Award from the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.

Justice and power

When his colleagues learned of his illness, they fast-tracked his latest bill to Gov. Nixon’s desk. The governor, Rep. Ellinger and a bipartisan group of state legislators gathered at University City Hall for the signing into law of a bill that permits nursing mothers to breastfeed in public and to delay jury duty.

State Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, waves to the audience earlier this month at a bill signing ceremony for HB 1320.
Credit Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, waves to the audience earlier this month at a bill signing ceremony for HB 1320.

It was a fitting tribute to a man whom his wife said could not remember her cell phone number, but who could “tell you the losing vice presidential candidate against McKinley.” He was, Locke once told the Business Journal, “Serious about his ideas, and justice, power and access to it.”

In his final public statement, Rep. Ellinger said he was proud of the legislature’s work on juvenile justice, the criminal code and health care. He wanted more.

“I am disappointed that we have not yet expanded Medicaid to the hundreds of thousands of Missourians without coverage, and that we continue to spend more time on fringe issues than on core issues like jobs and health care,” he said.

Rep. Ellinger was a soccer coach, avid art collector, civil war scholar and patron of the ballet.

"Everyone knows how dedicated he was to social justice," said Mr. Ellinger's daughter and law partner, Maggie Ellinger. "He was just as dedicated as a husband and father."

In addition to his wife, his survivors include a son, Martin (Erin) Ellinger of Chicago; and a daughter, Margaret “Maggie” (Eirik Kjeverud) Ellinger-Locke of St. Louis; a brother, Jim Ellinger of Austin, Texas; and a sister, Kathleen Ellinger..

Services will be Saturday afternoon at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Rd.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.