UW Press' Ellegood added zest to books

As a director of the University of Washington Press for 33 years, Donald "Don" Russell Ellegood found and transformed scholarly works — doctoral dissertations and obscure journal articles decked with footnotes — into books for the general public.

"His job as editor was to really find those diamonds in the rough ... and develop them to the point that they can be published," said Pat Soden, friend and current UW Press director. "He was absolutely brilliant at it."

During his decades at the helm of the UW Press, Mr. Ellegood brought to life topics on local history, culture and art. His books weren't best sellers in the usual sense: A successful run of an academic title meant some 3,000 copies sold.

But the books produced by the UW Press heightened awareness of the region's unique heritage.

"The reality is that until he published a little book called 'Northwest Indian Art' by Bill Holm, no one knew how to understand totem poles, the wonderful carvings, the things we now take for granted and understand," Soden said.

Mr. Ellegood died Wednesday (Jan. 8) after suffering a heart attack while playing tennis. He was 78.

He was born June 21, 1924, in Lawton, Okla.

He was a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps during World War II, during which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. A Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Mr. Ellegood earned a bachelor's degree in letters in 1948 and a master's degree in English literature in 1950.

He began his publishing career shortly after graduation, as an assistant editor at the University of Oklahoma Press.

It was soon evident that Mr. Ellegood had a knack for transforming scholarly material into mainstream gems.

"Don's real genius was that he realized that good research — published and packaged well — could reach a much wider market under general readers," Soden said.

Mr. Ellegood went from Oklahoma to the academic presses of Johns Hopkins University and Louisiana State University. He became director at the UW Press in 1963.

In addition to books on local art and history, Mr. Ellegood was especially interested in books on international studies and Seattle's orientation to Asia. He traveled as an academic publisher to Japan, China, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

When he retired as director of the press in 1996, an endowment was established in his name. He continued to work there regularly as an editor and director emeritus.

Yet for all his years in the rarified realm of academic publishing, Mr. Ellegood had a life outside of the books. "He had very wide interests," Soden said. "He was not an ivory-tower kind of guy."

He played clarinet in a trio known as the "Offshore Bookies," giving back monetary tips when requests reminded him of a song he enjoyed playing.

He could also whistle tunes with uncommon skill. His daughter, Sarah Mitchell, remembers hearing him whistling as he walked down University Avenue on his way to lunch.

"It was an instrument — truly," Mitchell said.

Mr. Ellegood held on to a few Southern traditions, such as passing out little sacks of luck-bearing black-eyed peas to colleagues on New Year's Eve.

He was an unrelenting tennis player. After his first heart attack on the tennis courts seven years ago, Mr. Ellegood drove himself to a doctor. Two months later he was on the courts again.

"He was bigger than life," Mitchell said.

Along with daughter Mitchell, of Sandpoint, Idaho, Mr. Ellegood is survived by daughter Elizabeth, of Seattle; sons Hunter and Kyle, both of Seattle; and companion Audrey Meyer. His wife, Bettie Jane Ellegood, died earlier.

The family asks that memorials be sent to the Donald R. Ellegood International Publications Endowment, University of Washington Press, P.O. Box 50096, Seattle, WA 98145-5096.

Sarah Anne Wright: 206-464-2752 or swright@seattletimes.com.