I was raised in a quintessential American family, one of 3 daughters and 4 sons of Don and Jane Ellis. Wisconsin has always been home. My dad was one of 14 kids growing up in Wisconsin Rapids. My mom had one brother and grew up in Milwaukee.
Life could be very harsh in the early 20th century. My dad was called home from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, at the age of 20, to care for 7 younger siblings when his mother died after giving birth to her fourteenth.
Soon after, the war effort called 5 of the Ellis brothers into military service. There were 5 blue stars on display in the window. One turned to gold when the oldest was killed in action in Belgium in 1944. My dad was a P-47D Thunderbolt fighter pilot. On October 4, 1944, he was shot down over Italy. He had to reach down into the flames to eject and was badly burned. His escape was a narrow one – his plane exploded midair seconds after he bailed out and his chute opened at treetop level. He was badly injured, but managed to keep the soldiers who were searching for him at bay for several days until his capture. He was a POW for 7 months in Stalag VIIA in Germany and liberated by General George Patton on a beautiful Sunday morning at the end of the war. The Allied troops broke through the gates, guns blazing. Bullets were flying overhead as the men attended Sunday service. My dad recalled looking up at the German guards in the towers and wondering about them wondering about their families. My dad was a compassionate man.
As you might imagine, my dad’s war story was legendary in our family. Every October 4 was crash day. My sister, Barb, would bring him a cake with a toy plane crashed into it. After he died, we found every plane tucked in his dresser drawer. When my dad died unexpectedly, my brother Dick brought Barb a cake on crash day. It had a Barbie doll crashed head first into it and the writing on the cake said, “Don’t crash Barbie.” My brothers are compassionate men.
After a year of medical care, with much skin grafting to his hands and an amputated little finger, it was time to get on with life. My dad met my mom at a wedding in Milwaukee and they were married a short time later. The GI Bill funded my dad’s engineering degree and my parents bought a wooded lot in New Berlin, a very rural and undeveloped suburb of Milwaukee at the time. My dad designed and built the house we would live in until we were adults. For 5 long years, my mom would pack him 2 lunches and he’d go right from his engineering job to the house and work until dark. There was no electricity when he started and he was hand sawing the lumber until a neighbor in one of the few houses in the neighborhood had him string a power cord to his house. I have vivid memories of my dad working late into the night doing finishing work while we were all in bed. We moved in with exposed studs and only the bare essentials.
That 1,400 square foot house was home to 9 of us until it was time to make our own way. Three girls in one room. Four boys in the other. There was nothing that resembled what is now known as privacy. I believe it may be why my siblings are my best friends. My parents both died in their own bed, in that home, six years apart, each at the age of 86.
My parents were partners in life and they taught us how to live. They led by example. They weren’t afraid to let us fall. They understood that you couldn’t learn how to get up unless you fell down. They believed in us, so we believed in ourselves. No training wheels on our bikes. No double-blades on our ice skates. We just went.
There are thousands of lessons seared in my brain. My dad and I were walking down the street in Boulder Junction when I was about 12. He pointed to a penny on the ground. I said, “It’s just a penny.” He bent over and picked it up. I still remember. I came home from high school my freshman year and told him about a very cute, very mean girl who was making fun of a kid for being tall and lanky. He said, “You better be a whole lot more than what you look like because your looks can be gone in an instant.” Another time, after yet another tragic death of one of his brothers, I asked how he could stand it, and he said, “It’s the circle of life. Time is a great healer.” They taught us how to live.
We all worked part time jobs from the time we were old enough. My mom’s rule was: you save 2/3 and can spend 1/3. I had $1,000 in the bank when I graduated high school in 1970. It funded my first year of college.
All 7 of us graduated from college. My parents just assumed we would. They didn’t pay our tuition, though looking back this was never discussed. We just made our plans and went about our lives. We all took different routes. Steve, the oldest enlisted in the Army and flew helicopters in Vietnam. He was shot down and very badly injured in 1970. He wanted to be an airline pilot, which was tough with a young wife and a couple of kids. He took a job as a janitor in a high school while he worked his way through flight school. He always said, “You do the work you can get until you can get the work you want.” He retired as the Captain of an Airbus A320.
I wanted to be a nurse for my entire life and went right after if after high school. My sister Barb got her Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing after an ignorant high school counselor told her she wasn’t college material. That should never happen to a kid. Jim and Dick took the long way around, laboring for the masons until they realized they were looking for something else. Dick is a journalist, owner and publisher of On Wisconsin Outdoors and Jim got his business degree and retired early. Patty raised her three kids and then went back to school for her Bachelor’s in Social Work. Then there’s John. He wanted to fly so badly the “A” volume of the encyclopedia would fall open to “Airplane” from being looked at so often. Every penny he made washing dishes at a local restaurant went into flying lessons. He soloed at 16. He is the Captain of a 737 today.
These are my roots, the abbreviated version. My parents taught us how to live. We hear a lot of meaningless talk these days about “privilege”. I am here to attest that I am proudly among the most privileged. My parents gave me everything money can’t buy.