ROCKDALE—Ronald Virgil Ellis passed away early in the morning of July 6, 2018, after a heroic 18 year battle with prostate cancer. Ron chose to pass in his own home, surrounded by the love of family and friends. He was 84 years old.
Ron is survived by his devoted children, Laura (J. Eric) Ellis Cotting, Andrew Ellis, Lisa Ellis and Dan (Brenda) Ellis; by his beloved grandchildren, Jessy Poole, Christine (Nathan) Beggan/McBride, Charlene (Chet) Hull Champion, Alexa Ponty, Galen Cotting, Kiran Cotting and Casey Ellis; by his darling great-granddaughter, Vivian McBride; and by his brother and lifetime best friend, Lawrence Ellis. Ron is preceded in death by his parents, Rose Oteman Ellis and Virgil Ellis; by his wife and soulmate of 53 years, Shirley Ann Niemeyer Ellis; and by his brother and close friend, Herbert (Maxine) Ellis.
Ron was born to Rose and Virgil Ellis on Oct. 15, 1933, in Milwaukee, Wis. His parents relocated to rural Washington County and bought a farm near Allenton in 1946. Ron graduated from Slinger High School in 1952. He attended Marquette University on a football scholarship, playing left tackle. In his words “I wasn’t prepared for all the new freedoms I had so I only lasted a year.” Afterward, Ron enlisted in the United States Army. He was a Korean War veteran. He began writing poetry in the barracks. He said his tour of duty taught him discipline, a love of classical music and motivated him to give college another try.
Ron enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1956, pursuing a dual major in English and History. Theater was his favorite extracurricular activity. He met Shirley, the love of his life, on the set. They married in Whitewater on Aug. 2, 1958. Ron graduated with a B.A. in 1960. He earned his M.A. in English from Cornell University in 1961, his graduate topic being William Blake’s poetry. He taught at Siena College, then accepted an offer from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1966. He earned a PhD in Media Studies from the Union Institute in 1975. At Whitewater, he worked his way up from Instructor to Full Professor of Literature and Media. He spearheaded development of a Writing Emphasis, originated and taught new courses in poetry writing, screenwriting, and desktop publishing, and retired in 1997 (Emeritus Professor). Ron hosted The Dangerous Odds Listening Hour on WORT 1991-2004. He was the Art Director of Rosebud magazine 2003-2009, its Associate Editor 2000-2011.
Ron was an energetic and innovative visionary who pursued his interests with zeal and very high standards. He was passionate about literature and the English language. Ron believed all people are born as creative, freethinking spirits who become stifled by societal conditioning as they mature. His lifelong ambition was to encourage us to look outside ourselves with open minds, and to reawaken the innate creativity of his students and his audience through his teaching, his poetry, and his performance art.
Ron said his teaching methods were intended to “wake the freshmen up.” Ron included controversial topical themes in his assignments and lyrics from edgier musicians, such as Frank Zappa. During the Civil Rights movement, Ron worked with his students to create the film “Black at Whitewater.” During the Vietnam War, Ron openly opposed U.S. involvement both on and off campus, through his performance art. Ron’s enthusiasm for creative writing made a deep impression on his students. He received excellent performance reviews throughout his teaching career. Former students often greeted him warmly in public many years after graduating, or were overheard praising him to friends while dining out. “Ron Ellis, my all time favorite college professor, helped me find my passions in life for writing song lyrics and poetry. I’m forever grateful... RWG My Brother and always with Love, Peace, and Light “—Rodney Washington.
Ron was a prolific poet, widely published from 1964 onward. His most well known books are “The Blue Train and Other Poems,” “Bone Flute and Other Poems,” “The Tenting Cantos,” and “Homage to Shirley.” His poetry was unique, diverse and highly skilled. William Stafford wrote “A great scramble of space-age, electronic-age, solar-drive pieces of consciousness ... but carrying with it a fragmented tide of nostalgia.” B. J. Best said “...like nothing I’ve ever read... Ellis offers poems that are as immediate as describing squirrels, crickets, and spiders, while others have traveled across spatial, temporal, and astral planes to reach us... Hold on to your chakras, kiddoes. You won’t have left your chair, but it’ll feel like you’ve gone a million miles.” Ron was often invited to read his poetry locally as well as on the East and West coasts. Common local venues included Avol’s Books, Mother Fool’s, and Olbrich Gardens in Madison, Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee, and The Café Carpe in Fort Atkinson. He knew Wisconsin’s greatest poet Lorine Niedecker, and was a protégé of nationally renowned poet William Stafford. Ron was a lifetime member of the Wisconsin Friends of Poetry.
Ron was concerned about the popular perception of poetry as boring and was deeply committed to rekindling public interest in it. He felt combining poetry with other art forms was the solution. In the early 70s, he began combining poetry with film. In the early 80s, he added music and referred to his work as “fusion poetry” and “performance art”. He collaborated with well-known musician, Al Jewer, and organized The Chamber Rock Ensemble. Ron said “The difference between what we do and rock music with vocals is that when what we do works, the poetry is understandable. It’s distinct and the audience pays as much attention to the words as to the music. There’s a fine line there. It’s like bringing a chemical reaction to the right state before it can react.” The group’s first tape was “Open My Eyes.” Professor N. Hart (U. of Minnesota) said “Terrific stuff! I was roaring with laughter at the jibes, the wit, the cleverness of it all and stomping my feet to the musical rhythms.” The group performed in small clubs and on college campuses throughout the Midwest and on the East coast for 10 years.
Later, Ron formed Dangerous Odds and Fuzzy Logic. Dangerous Odds was dedicated to improvisation. “These recordings represent those moments of near-telepathy between the players, when the safety nets have been abandoned and all are flying free”—Volume 2 jacket. Annie Randall said ‘With a layered collage of words and sounds, the art of Fuzzy Logic is at once mystical and edged’. The three groups produced two tapes and six CDs. J. Rod Clark described the pieces as “a lively and sophisticated mix of meaning and melody that captured the qualities of ‘beat’ poetry, while adding layers of subtlety to a style that was both playful and profound.” Ron also produced half a dozen documentary films.
Ron Ellis left a large gap with his passing and will be missed by many. A Celebration of the Life and Works of Ronald Ellis will be held for family and friends at the Soulful Toad in Fort Atkinson on Oct. 20, 2018.
The Nitardy Funeral Home, Cambridge, Wis., assisted the family.