John W. Ela was born in Meredith New Hampshire in 1840. Ela received his law degree from Harvard University and upon graduation, set up his own law practice in his native town. Ela practiced law in Meredith until the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1863, Ela volunteered as a soldier in the 15th New Hampshire volunteer infantry. Ela served for the entire duration of the Civil War, and by the war’s end, Ela had been promoted to the rank of Captain.
When the Civil War had come to a close, Ela returned to his practice of law. He did not, however, return to Meredith. Ela chose to set up a law practice in Chicago, which would become his home for the next 36 years, until his death. His law practice was quite successful, but in addition to his own private practice, Ela became one of the chief advocates for municipal service law. He is given credit not only for advocating municipal service law in Chicago, but also for framing it and helping push it through the Illinois legislature.
In May of 1900, Mayor Carter H. Harrison II appointed Ela to the Chicago Civil Service Commission. After only one month of service on the board, Ela was made President. Ela also served as an attendant in sessions of legislation, and would often give his opinion on legislative issues at the state government level. Although Ela was a Democrat, he was known for his bi-partisan nature and frequently worked with both Republicans and Democrats on issues of his concern. Despite his extensive public service and his foot heavily in the door of politics, he personally never sought office, which in many ways added to his political clout since many viewed his motivation for political involvement as purely altruistic.
His life, however, came to an unfortunate sudden end. On December 15th, 1902 John Ela was attending a national civil service convention in Philadelphia, and, while reading a document, he suffered a stroke and died shortly thereafter. Not too long before his death, Ela had been told by physicians that he could die suddenly at any moment. Ela had passed the information about his physical instability on to some of his close colleagues; thus his abrupt death was not entirely unexpected. Nonetheless, his death was greatly lamented in the political circles in which Ela had dedicated his life to serving.
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“Civil Service Worker, Who Died Suddenly.” Chicago Daily Dec. 16, 1902. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Chicago Tribune (1849-1986). Pg. 4