Walter R. Ely, attorney, judge, and state highway commissioner, the youngest of ten children of Mr. and Mrs. Herod Ely, was born on April 3, 1879, in Somerset, Kentucky, during the family's move from Virginia to Texas. The Elys lived for a time in Denton and Mills counties before settling on a farm in Callahan County in 1895. Walter attended local schools before moving as a youth to Dallas to study law in the office of Judge Charles F. Clint and former lieutenant governor Barry Miller. After he was admitted to the bar in 1903 Ely returned to Callahan County, where he was elected county attorney in 1904. He was elected county judge in 1912 and served until 1918, when he resigned to go into the oil business. In 1919 Governor William P. Hobby appointed him to fill a vacant judgeship in the Forty-second District Court. Ely and his family moved from Baird to nearby Abilene during his tenure as judge. One of his notable cases was the Ross-Goode trial for the murder of cattle inspectors at Seminole in Gaines County.
Ely held the district judgeship until Governor Dan Moody named him to the Texas Highway Commission (see TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION) in January 1927. The operation of the commission had been an issue in the bitter gubernatorial election of 1926, when Moody defeated Miriam A. Ferguson. Soon after the election the previous commission resigned, and Moody named Ross Sterling, Cone Johnson, and Ely to the three-man board. Ely gave up his $4,500-a-year judgeship to take the commission post at an annual salary of $1,000. He served for eight years, half the time as member, half as chairman. The commission undertook a housecleaning, instituted competitive bidding, slashed construction costs, and revamped the financing program. A new road system began to emerge, with wider pavements and expanded rights-of-way. During this era Ely was named by President Calvin Coolidge to the Inter-American Highway Commission.
Subsequently, Ely returned to private law practice in Abilene. During World War II he served as chairman of the Taylor County gasoline and tire rationing board. He and his wife, the former Lucy McCoy of Callahan County, had two children. Ely was a Democrat and a Methodist. He died on January 31, 1978, two months before his 100th birthday, and was buried in Elmwood Memorial Park in Abilene.