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ConCon delegate, lawyer Mae Nan Ellingson to receive honorary doctorate from UM


Mae Nan Ellingson, a delegate to Montana's 1972 Constitutional Convention who later earned a law degree from the University of Montana School of Law, will receive an honorary doctorate from UM at the shool's fall commencement on Friday, Dec. 15.

UM News Service

MISSOULA – The University of Montana will recognize Constitutional Convention Delegate Mae Nan Ellingson with an honorary doctorate – the highest individual award recognized by the institution.

Ellingson, who received two degrees from UM including a juris doctor, was the youngest delegate to the 1972 Constitutional Convention and one of 19 women out of 100 delegates to serve.

“Over the course of history, few Montanans have accomplished as much public good for our state as Mae Nan Ellingson,” said UM President Seth Bodnar. “She is an inspiration to our students and a testament for what can be accomplished when refusing to stay on the sidelines. It is a true privilege to recognize Mae Nan for her accomplishments, which will be felt by generations of Montanans for many decades to come.”     

During the convention, Ellingson led proposals for the state’s Declaration of Rights, which includes equal rights for women and the right to privacy for every Montanan. Her nomination for the honorary doctorate was unanimously approved by the Montana Board of Regents.

“‘I am incredibly humbled, honored and grateful for this immense honor,” Ellingson said. “For 55 years of my life I have been a University of Montana Grizzly. Education, and particularly the education, guidance and encouragement I received from the faculty and leadership of the University, has made a profound difference in my life --  a difference I could have never anticipated.”

Ellingson credits Dr. Ellis Waldron for encouraging her to run for a delegate position to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention. At the time, she was a 24-year-old graduate assistant.

“The Constitutional Convention provided me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to Montana, but also opened doors for me to attend law school, and subsequently to embark on a fulfilling and important career that continued my primary interest in state and local government, especially in the arena of public finance,” Ellingson added. 

Ellingson supported other critical provisions to Montana’s Constitution, such as expanding access to public lands, increasing state government transparency, bolstering protections to clean air and clean water and establishing an independent Board of Regents to govern the Montana University System. Ellingson is credited with co-authoring the preamble to the Montana Constitution that reads:

“We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.”

“What her story portrays are all the obstacles and challenges she overcame, starting with a rocky childhood, poverty and raising a younger sibling,” said Dorothy Bradley, a former Montana legislator who is also a Montana lawyer. “However, at age 22 she cultivated her interest in a state constitution, ran a campaign and served as a delegate with such dignity, and it’s a testament to her superb mind and internal, enduring strength. Mae Nan is so suited for this honor, having found her intellectual anchor at the University of Montana with the encouragement and support of UM faculty.”

After graduating from the University of Montana School of Law, Ellingson launched a successful legal career that included working as bond counsel for Dorsey & Whitney in Missoula. Over nearly three decades, Ellingson contributed to nearly every major local government financing project across Montana.

During her time in private practice, she helped lead the charge to form the Montana Municipal Insurance Authority, establish tax increment financing and create other tools that Montana’s municipal governments use to invest in their communities.

“Mae Nan provided expert legal, financial and tax advice to various legislative committees on issues associated with school districts and special improvement districts, as well as projects involving local and state government,” said Mike Halligan, a former legislator and executive director of the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation. “In addition, Mae Nan was the most respected expert in the field of public bonding and her opinions were relied on by public officials at all levels of government.”

Ellingson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in political science with honors from UM in 1970, and she earned her law degree in 1976.

“I have and will continue in as many ways as I can to show my love and gratitude for public education, this institution and the State of Montana,” Ellingson added. “I express my sincere thanks to those who saw fit to nominate me for this incredible honor, to those who shepherded it through the process and finally to the Board of Regents for bestowing on me this honorary doctorate.”

She will be given her honorary doctorate at the fall 2023 UM Commencement, held at 2 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15, in the Adams Center. This event is free and open to the public.