Art Ellison has one dying wish: Feed all New Hampshire students

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed.

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed.

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed.

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed.

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed.

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed.

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed.

Art Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, sits in the family room of the Granite VNA Hospice Center to discuss the food bill legislation bill he wants to be passed. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 03-15-2024 2:52 PM

Modified: 03-15-2024 3:31 PM


Art Ellison isn’t one to mince words. With a red blanket over his lap and a “support public education” t-shirt on, he has one final request as he rests at the Granite VNA hospice house.

“Feed the damn kids,” he said.

Ellison, a three-term House Democrat from Concord, knows his days are numbered. When he entered hospice, the doctors told him he had between two days to two weeks to live. But that was three and a half weeks ago.

In his waning days, he’s asking his colleagues in the State House to pass a bill that was the culmination of his six years in the legislature – increasing free and reduced lunch eligibility for school children.

It’s a dying wish from an 80-year-old man who spent his career asking how he could leave things better for others, said friend and fellow House Education Committee Member Mel Myler, a Hopkinton Democrat.

“I would tag this as the ‘Art Ellison food for kids bill’,” said Myler. “He’s always tried to focus on helping those who don’t have a voice.”

Just over a month ago, state representatives voted in favor of House Bill 1212 by a 193-17 margin in Ellison’s absence. When Ellison introduced a similar bill in his first term, it failed by two votes, he said. In the last session, it was killed again.

But it was Ellison’s consistent push for the bill that brought it one step closer to competition this go around, said Myler. And although his colleague may not be there to see it signed into law, or even to learn if it passes the Senate, the process so far is a testament to his work in the legislature.

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“Because of his persistence, there was finally a recognition after coming before the House a third time that people then began to realize, ‘maybe we need to support this’ and they did,” said Myler.

Ellison said it was his proudest moment as a legislator. But he wasn’t there to witness it.

Six months ago he was faced with a tough reality. His declining health meant he needed to choose to continue to spend time in the State House or focus on his final months with family. He chose the latter.

Although he hasn’t visited the State House since November, listed as excused on House roll call votes, that doesn’t mean he can tune out his political ambition. He won’t ever be able to, he joked.

“I wake up in the morning and say, ‘okay, I need to write these three memos to these people. I gotta do this, I gotta do that,’” he said. “I can’t shut it off. I probably won’t shut it off until I can’t do it anymore.”

In a fantasy scenario, he envisioned himself sitting at home in Concord, waiting for a call from a legislative colleague that he’d be needed on a critical bill. He’d hop in the car and drive over to the State House to vote.

But that wasn’t a plausible scenario. Instead, he’s watched the end of the legislative session play out through his colleagues and inviting friends from all walks of life to come and say goodbye.

“He’s looking at death with dignity,” said Myler. “He’s allowed opportunities for people who he hasn’t seen for a while to come and have their last conversation.”

And in some cases, those last conversations are instructions for carrying out his final food bill.

The bill would increase eligibility for free lunch to all students whose household income is at or below 350 percent of the federal poverty line, up from 130 percent. For a family of four, that comes out to $109,200.

Currently, the state provides free lunch for students who fall at 130 percent and reduced costs for those at 185 percent. During the 2022-2023 school year nearly a quarter of New Hampshire students qualified, with 37,380 enrolled.

Ellison’s bill would nearly double the eligibility.

“This is not a Democrat bill, it is not a Republican bill,” he said. “It’s a children’s bill.”

Another Ellison food-related proposal, House Bill 572, is currently on the table in the Senate, by a 13-11 margin. This would increase eligibility to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The Senate could pick it back up and send it through to the Governor’s desk. And it would be a simple way to honor Ellison, said Stephen Woodcock, a Center Conway Democrat.

“It would be a hell of a legacy,” said Woodcock. “It’d be one of the most important things the State of New Hampshire can do and you can thank Arthur for his constant perseverance.”

In July of 2018, after nearly 40 years working for the state in dropout prevention programs, Ellison turned in his retirement notice to the Department of Education. By the afternoon, he’d filed paperwork to run for state representative.

Ellison brought his passion to keep kids in school with him to the State House serving on the House Education Committee..

Ellison first met Woodcock in the early 2000s, working together on a program to bring students who had dropped out back to the classroom to complete their high school degrees. Even then, feeding students was at the forefront of Ellison’s work.

Woodcock, who is a retired principal and teacher, noticed that many of these dropout students would spend a full day at work before attending night classes. More often than not, they showed up to class hungry.

Ellison rewrote the guidelines to include dinner for night school students.

“He has never backed off on feeding kids,” said Woodcock. “That has been his first priority.”

Fast forward nearly 20 years and Woodcock and Ellison were both elected to the State House in 2018. They sat next to each other for the last five and a half years.

Most days, Ellison is measured in nature. With long white hair and a soft-spoken voice, he was mellow among the cacophony of fellow legislators. But not when it came to student hunger, said Woodcock.

“He doesn’t get upset about much. But boy, is he passionate about this issue,” he said. “When we spoke about this issue, that was it. You could see the emotion rise, the blood pressure rise and the passion and the intonation in his voice.”

His declining health has now cut short work he feels is far from over, too. Expanding free and reduced lunch eligibility was only the first step in a longtime goal to provide universal meals for students, which was instituted during the pandemic with federal grants. The program is now state law in Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts.

“I’m not going to be there but the next step is making sure that every single school has a free lunch,” said Ellison. “Then it’s making sure every school has free breakfast. Then we want to go to universal feeding.”

Looking at the remaining two dozen bills in front of the House Education Committee, it is hard for Ellison to miss those votes. His voice still cracks when he thinks about the State House.

“I wish I were there,” he said. “Legislative work would probably be one of the most important parts of my life.”

Ellison had been politically active long before he was sworn into his seat in Concord.

Ellison’s college days can be marked by being a “conscientious objector” to the Vietnam War. His first campaign in New Hampshire was for Fred Harris’ presidential bid in 1975. Raising his family on Rumford Street, he dragged his two kids to campaign event after campaign event. And he was a Bernie Sanders supporter before he even launched his first presidential campaign.

“We were a political family,” he said.

Politics was a shared passion with his late wife, Susan Gladstone, who died in 1992.

While receiving a blood transfusion at Concord Hospital, Gladstone contracted HIV. She turned the diagnosis into a point of activism though, said Ellison, inviting support groups into their home and advocating for medical care for those living with the disease.

“It was a hard time for us all but we kept on fighting,” he said. “We didn’t give up.”

Now, he knows it’s time for him to see his wife again. And a long list of late friends, like Bruce Friedman and Tom Fredenburg.

“I tell people, I’ll be there, I’ll wait for you to come up,” he said. “In the meantime, I’ll play basketball with Bruce and Tom.”