Remembering Ells Culver: A Visionary, Mentor and Friend

August 16, 2005

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    Photo: Jared Lin/Mercy Corps Photo:

Ells Culver reached out to other cultures from a very early age. As a young child in China, where his parents were missionaries, he learned and spoke Mandarin with childhood friends.

Ells remained committed to such outreach and friendship throughout his life.

He spent most of his professional life in humanitarian work, always advancing ideas about how to better help families in need. He held positions with international organizations like World Vision and Food for the Hungry.

In 1980, Ells had a serendipitous meeting that would change his life and shape his future. At a conference for the Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations, he sat behind a man named Dan O'Neill - who would become his collaborator in founding Mercy Corps.

"I looked behind me and saw a very elegant looking man with reading glasses, wearing a blue blazer, blue pinstripe shirt and red tie," Dan said. "I remember thinking ‘this man must be a senator.' He was very impressive."

The two men immediately struck up a strong, enduring friendship. They had a common bond: Dan's Save the Refugees Fund had provided grants to Food for the Hungry, the organization that Ells served as Vice-President.

However, it was a much stronger bond - a commitment to provide more innovative, sustainable aid and development to poor communities - that united the two men in a singular purpose.

After sharing their visions and continuing fruitful discussions for two years, Ells and Dan O'Neill formed Mercy Corps in 1982.

Over the next few years, Ells helped transform Mercy Corps into an organization focused on helping people build secure, productive and just communities. He traveled to some of the world's most volatile, fragile and poor places - including Lebanon, the West Bank, Pakistan and Ethiopia - to evaluate crises and begin lifesaving projects.

One particular example of Ells' commitment to helping others occurred during a visit to Pakistan in 1985. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he traveled to Pakistan to set up a comprehensive program to aid Afghan refugees. The success of that program depended on one condition: meeting with the leader of a local Afghan coalition. Before he could meet this leader, Ells was blindfolded and led to an unknown location.

Soon after the blindfold came off, Ells secured an agreement with the Afghan leader for Mercy Corps to institute a critical medical project in for refugees in the area. He sealed the bargain with a handshake.

Ells was always committed to his work.

As Mercy Corps' President from 1984 to 1993, Ells directed the expansion of the agency's international relief and development programs into Africa, Asia and Central America. Today, the organization he helped build reaches 7 million people in 35 countries.

In recent years, as Mercy Corps' Senior Vice President, Ells focused on establishing innovative programs and partnerships in East Asia - particularly North Korea. His tireless efforts have extended the hand of friendship, opened boundaries and created humanitarian partnerships in countries where very little aid previously existed.

Ells was a champion of reconciliation between the United States and North Korea, helping found the National Committee for North Korea, an organization that advances, promotes and facilitates engagement between citizens of the two nations.

Throughout his professional career - and in all other aspects of his life - Ells Culver was committed to bringing relief, understanding and hope to people. From conversing in Mandarin with childhood friends to shipping thousands of Oregon-grown apple trees to farmers in North Korea, Ells always reached out to people with elegance, grace and faith.