Family, colleagues remember Dick Ellis on Hall of Fame induction

Published 10:55 am Friday, July 28, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Richard F. “Dick” Ellis wasn’t much of a suit-and-tie man. He played semi-pro and coached youth baseball and was a good golfer. He wrote speeches for a Republican congressional candidate in 1960. He loved to fish and camp and could often be heard from his back porch picking bluegrass tunes on his guitar with friends. But besides his wife and children, the love of Ellis’s life was radio.
And on Saturday, July 29, this local legend in the broadcasting industry, who brought National Public Radio to the region at East Tennessee State University’s WETS-FM, will posthumously take his place in the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame. He is one of four members of the Hall’s Legacy Class of 2023.
From a young age, Ellis aspired to a career in radio, according to his children.
“He bought a voice recorder when he was a teenager, and being from Roan Mountain, that was a big investment,” said Dianna Ellis Cox. “But he wanted to lose his accent and train his voice.”
His career goals took a back seat to World War II. Ellis graduated early from high school and worked in the shipyards until he turned 18 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He fought in the Pacific theater in 1944-45.
Ellis returned to Tennessee and pursued his dream career with stints at radio stations in Elizabethton and Kingsport before joining WJHL and working as an anchor. When WJHL sold its radio side, he elected to stay with the radio station.
At WJCW-AM 910, Ellis gained a large and loyal following as the voice of “Little Richard,” which he assumed during the morning drive time alongside colleague Bill Marrs as “Professor Kingfish” in the 1960s and ’70s. According to Ellis’s family, this collaboration came about when Marrs was struggling on air one day during his afternoon show when a scheduled guest failed to appear.
“The story has it that Dad walked in and started shooting the bull with him,” Cox said. “It was like a spontaneous thing – Dad was helping a buddy on the air, and their chemistry was just golden. Somebody said, ‘We need to do this!’ Sponsors absolutely lined up.”
Also at WJCW, Ellis, an alumnus of then-East Tennessee State College, spent more than two decades calling ETSU and Science Hill High School football and basketball games, as well as the rookie league baseball home games played in Johnson City. In addition, he called NASCAR races at Bristol Motor Speedway for WJCW in the 1960s before the advent of the Motor Racing Network.
Ellis began working toward what would become WETS-FM while still working at WJCW. The fledgling station was first located in a house at the end of Maple Street on the main ETSU campus. He became general manager of the station in 1973 and led the effort for the station to become a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate in 1974. When it became clear that more space was needed, Ellis played a leadership role in getting a new building to house the station’s operations.
“When they built the station, Dad was really integral in the design of the building,” Cox said. “I remember him picking every square inch of what went into that building and being super proud of that studio. It was state-of-the-art, acoustically. It was a studio people could record in.”
In February 1993, the university named the new station building Richard F. Ellis Hall in his honor in a dedication ceremony attended not only by family and university officials, but also local, state and national political figures. Two weeks after the ceremony, Ellis died of the lung cancer he had been fighting for over a year – a year in which he continued to work half-days toward the completion of the building, relying on his capable staff when he was too tired.
“The dedication was bittersweet,” Cox said. “It was wonderful that the university had the forethought to dedicate it before his passing, because that meant the world to him.”
Following his death, Ellis’s young protégé, Wayne Winkler, took the reins at WETS-FM and led the station for three decades.
“Dick helped define what public radio is in the Tri-Cities region,” said Winkler, who continues to work at the station as a semi-retired announcer and producer. “When WETS went on the air in 1974, NPR had only been on the air for a little over three years, and public radio was still in the process of being defined. I think local stations like WETS had to kind of make it up as they went along, and it was Dick Ellis’s vision of what WETS could be that guided us through those early years. The station evolved on the basis of what Dick Ellis set out to do at the very beginning.
“For me personally,” he continued, “it was an introduction to public radio and the possibilities of public radio. I’d worked in public radio in college and then went into commercial radio, so when I came to WETS, public radio was still kind of new to me. He showed me the potential of what public radio could be, and even more, what I could be within public radio. It was a really important association to me, and I look back on Dick as a father figure. He had a lot to do with giving me a shot at making the kind of radio that I wanted to make.”
The Ellis children fondly recall their years of growing up in a radio family.
“We woke up to ‘Little Richard’ and ‘Professor Kingfish’ and country music on WJCW, and when we were picked up from school, it was classical on WETS-FM,” Cox said.
As children, Dianna, Donna, Tony and Doug had to be very careful of every word that came out of their mouths.
“Anything we said around the house might be on the radio the next morning! Anything that happened in the neighborhood might become part of the storyline,” Cox said. “That was how he earned his money, telling stories.”
“And they were embellished!” added Tony Ellis. “When the stories were told, they were much better than the reality.”
The boys became his “hired help” in the press box, and Tony was even conscripted to call Elizabethton Cyclones football games one season when the sports announcer at an Elizabethton station quit after the first game.
“He loved what he did,” said Donna Ellis. “It wasn’t work to him. I never heard him complain, ‘I’ve got to go to work.’ Even when Trevor (Swoyer) would call and say the signal’s out, they’d head to the mountain, and you’d see him on the pole. He lived his dream.”
She added that while their father is being inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame for his accomplishments at ETSU, Ellis is perhaps best remembered as his alter ego. “We all know building this radio station was his biggest achievement, but he’s best known in the community as ‘Little Richard,’” she said. “We are honored, blessed, and thrilled beyond belief that people remember him.”
“I’ll still occasionally meet somebody, and when they find out who I am, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I remember listening to your dad on the radio,’” Tony Ellis said.
“One thing about his family,” Cox said, “is that they were raised as a hard-working farm family, but they were raised as patriots. All six of the boys served their country – two served in World War II, two in Korea and two in Vietnam – and all six lived. I think they were raised to be part of the greater picture, and Dad took that to heart. He wanted to leave his mark. He did, in a small way. He’s left his mark. He’s left something to be remembered by.”

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox