Obituaries


Elizabeth Stone Ellis
Elizabeth “Betty” (Stone) Ellis, 92, of Manchester, Connecticut, died peacefully on May 4, 2020, at home surrounded by family. She was the beloved wife of Neil H. Ellis, her biggest fan and husband of 70 years.

Ellis was born September 30, 1927, to Abraham and Anna Stone and raised in Albany, New York. She graduated from Pembroke College at Brown University in 1949, majoring in philosophy and wowing audiences in school theater productions, including one upperclassman who became her husband. The couple married after her graduation and moved to Manchester the following year.

Ellis joined the Journal Inquirer in 1967 and became publisher in 1973, one of just a few women in similar positions nationwide. She championed the public’s right to know and spurred the JI’s focus on local news and sports coverage that continues today in 18 towns the newspaper serves.

Her love of strikingly offbeat art, world travel and hosting gatherings of family and friends will leave a lasting mark in the memories of all who knew and loved “Bubba.”

Ellis was predeceased by her son, Jonathan Ellis, brothers Robert and Joseph Stone, and dearest friend Adele Bauman. Besides her husband, she leaves two daughters, Deborah Ellis (Adrian Keating) of West Hartford and Abigail Bellock (William) of Manchester; grandchildren Emily Bellock, Jonathan Bellock, Eliza Bhargava, and Samuel Bellock; great-grandchildren Jane and Samuel Bellock; sister-in-law Blanche Stone; nieces and nephews; and longtime friends who will miss her gracious and welcoming presence. The family extends special thanks to Monika Byczkowski for her dedication and kindness.

Memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society or a charity of the donor's choice. A memorial service will be held when family and friends can gather in person.

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Journal Inquirer Publisher Elizabeth S. Ellis died Monday at 92 after a 53-year career at the newspaper during which she was a rarity in American journalism — a woman in charge.

In 1967, a year after the death from leukemia of their teen-age son, Jonathan, Ellis’ husband, Neil, a real estate developer with an interest in journalism, bought two weekly newspapers, the Rockville Journal and South and East Windsor Inquirer. Betty, as she was known, who had been working with mentally disabled children, went to work in the circulation department of the papers. The weeklies were merged into the daily Journal Inquirer in 1968 and she became assistant publisher in 1970 and publisher in 1973.

In the coming decades she supervised the daily paper’s expansion, from five towns covered out of an old garage building in Vernon’s Rockville section to the paper’s current 18 towns covered from an industrial building in Manchester. The JI soon became a force in state as well as local news.

As publisher Ellis somehow kept order and comity amid a staff of brash and occasionally cantankerous reporters and editors and department heads. Some of the reporters and editors went on to major national news organizations, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today.

A photograph of a newspaper publishers conference at the American Press Institute in Reston, Virginia, in the 1970s shows her as the only woman among 50 participants. Her face is composed, chin raised, with a slight smile. She had broken through the glass ceiling long before most people realized it was even there.

Elizabeth Ellis publishers conference

Journal Inquirer Publisher Elizabeth S. Ellis, fifth from left in front row, with other newspaper publishers at a conference in the 1970s.

“She was never intimidated by state politics or other newspapers or sports on a grand scale,” said the JI’s former assistant sports editor, Phil Chardis, who was with the paper for decades before joining the University of Connecticut’s basketball department.

But, Chardis added, Ellis was true to her roots in local reporting, believing that coverage of Little League and high school games was just as important as coverage of the Red Sox or Yankees. Her attitude, Chardis said, was: “Let’s be more aggressive and have the JI tell it like it is — somebody has to. That motto on the front page — that’s her.”

Ellis received numerous awards, including the Yankee Quill Award of the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2000. The JI won the group’s Newspaper of the Year award in 1987.

Under Ellis the JI acquired a reputation as a champion of freedom of information, bringing many complaints against state and local government agencies to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, winning nearly all of them. Former JI News Editor Robert H. Boone noted that the arrest of a JI reporter for refusing to leave an illegally closed meeting of the Enfield Town Council in 1974 was partly credited for enactment of Connecticut’s comprehensive Freedom of Information Act the following year. The charges against the reporter were dismissed in court.

While other JI alumni have been described as the heart (former Living section editor Richard Tambling), backbone (former Managing Editor Chris Powell, now a columnist), or face (former Sports Editor Randy Smith) of the newspaper, Ellis was the soul that held the institution together.

“Betty was a pillar of rectitude — that was the most important thing about her,” retired News Editor Ralph W. Williams Jr. said. “She was always encouraging young reporters and wouldn’t stand for any public official who tried to bully or intimidate them out of doing their job. She would get very upset and her wrath would put that sucker in his place,” Williams added with a chortle as he remembered Ellis confronting a politician who wanted an unfavorable story spiked.

“She stood by her reporters and stood up for them,” Williams said, and she commanded “basic human decency in the workplace. She was always cordial and considerate, but she could freeze your blood if you were really doing something wrong.”

Chardis described Ellis’ mentoring style with reporters as that of a supportive aunt: “She gave us the freedom to learn and move it forward and do as good a job as we could do. ... It was all new to us. ... It was a terrific learning experience and she had everything to do with that.”

The JI’s former editorial page editor, Keith C. Burris, now executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said Ellis “was fearless and honorable and had flawless instincts. She was not only the finest publisher I have worked with in 40 years in journalism, but the finest journalist. She was also the funniest, warmest, and best human being I have known or worked with anywhere.”

Jessica Hill, longtime photo editor at the Journal Inquirer, recalled that “Mrs. E.” often left her notes of encouragement.

“From the start Mrs. E (she would insist I call her Betty but as our publisher and someone I really looked up to, Mrs. E is as casual as I could get), always supported me, particularly as a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field,” Hill said.

“Occasionally she would leave me a photo clipping from The New York Times with Sara Krulwich’s credit line with a note reading “You can do this!!!” (Her positive notes always had exclamation points). Krulwich worked earlier in her career as the Journal Inquirer’s first female staff photographer. Mrs. E’s office was always an open door, one I couldn’t get past without her raising her eyes above her reading glasses and waving me in to talk. She demanded a lot but she believed you could do it. She believed in me and was influential in my growth during an early stage of my career. I’m honored to say I am the Journal Inquirer’s first female photo editor today and grateful to have worked with Mrs. E.”

New York Times columnist Dan Barry, a reporter with the JI for four years in the 1980s, fondly recalled Ellis. He said: “I remember often looking up from my desk in the newsroom to see Betty in her glass-encased office, working as hard as anyone to make the Journal Inquirer the best it could be. She was regal and erudite, yet very much the embodiment of a tough, no-nonsense tabloid.

“We always knew that she had our backs no matter what. We knew that even though she was the publisher, she was one of us. In a rough-and-tumble business that was almost entirely dominated by men back then, Betty more than held her own, and we admired her for it.”

Elizabeth Ellis in the pressroom

Journal Inquirer Publisher Elizabeth S. Ellis inspects newspapers coming off the press.

Ellis wasn’t timid with business decisions. The JI’s move to Manchester and expansion to cover towns that already were being served by other newspapers was bold, Chardis said, adding that those other publications have either closed or drastically curtailed local coverage.

A particularly firm judgment by Ellis shocked the newsroom in April 1974, Powell recalled.

Back then, long before the internet, newspaper deadlines and delivery times were supposed to be inviolable, Powell said, and while his predecessor as managing editor was brilliant, he was also a perfectionist who often failed to produce the paper on time. The JI’s press run had been badly late every day for months because the managing editor was obsessing over some ordinary story.

Ellis was new to the publisher job and the circulation department was pleading for help. One morning a small plane crashed into a house in Ashford. A reporter and photographer were dispatched and the managing editor went looking for the publisher to tell her that the paper would have to break deadline again to get the news into that day’s edition.

But Ellis would not be bullied and told the managing editor that the paper would have to publish on time or hold the story for the next day. Enraged, the managing editor walked out of the building and never came back. Miraculously, neither the pilot of the crashed plane nor the occupant of the house it struck was seriously injured, and perhaps more miraculously the JI reporter and photographer got the story and the photo for that day’s edition and it was published on time.

“Betty said we’d go out on time that day, and we did — and that was the day Betty truly became publisher,” Powell said.

JI staffers weren’t the only journalists to hold Ellis in high esteem.

“She was a great lady,” said Nate Agostinelli, a former Manchester mayor, state comptroller, National Guard brigadier general, and president of the former Manchester Savings Bank for 25 years. “As far as I’m concerned, she was way ahead of her time, both as a publisher and a woman.”

Ellis made the JI readable and enjoyable, and she lived up to its motto while setting the pace for women in journalism — not only for how to do it right, but also for how to do it with class, Agostinelli said. “You could disagree with her, but you couldn’t help but like her,” he said with a soft chuckle.

“Betty was all class, class, class,” he said in admiration, adding that despite her de-meanor, her no-nonsense newspaper helped to keep local officials honest, regardless of political party, because they knew if they crossed the line, the JI would be there, standing guard for its readers.

“She and the JI are special to Manchester and the whole region, really,” Agostinelli said. “I don’t think she realized sometimes how powerful she was, but she never acted that way” or exerted it for personal privilege, he said.

Elizabeth Ellis portrait 2

Publisher Elizabeth S. Ellis supervised the daily newspaper’s growth from covering five towns to 18.

Her peers also held her in high regard.

In his speech at an annual convention of the New England Newspaper and Press Association, Jim Ottaway Jr., a former Wall Street executive and longtime newspaper and magazine editor, remarked on the trend of newspaper ownership toward corporate conglomerates interested only in making money.

Ottaway cited the Journal Inquirer under Ellis as one of the few remaining “excellent family-owned community newspapers” that treated their properties “as public trusts, not as private privileges of profit.”

Ottaway called Ellis “heroic” for putting quality first and profit second, and thereby growing the newspaper’s circulation and advertising revenue while vanquishing its competition.

In a letter to readers on the JI’s 30th anniversary, Ellis asked the rhetorical question of why it was so important to continue, answering that “in the end news still sells newspapers, and that, behind the controversy and occasional unpleasantness, people really do want a newspaper that is local and unafraid and theirs, a newspaper that gives them news about themselves, their town, and their state that they can’t really get any place else, a newspaper that ‘tells it like it is.’”

Ellis was born Sept. 30, 1927, in Albany, New York, to Abraham and Anna Morris Stone. She attended local schools and then Pembroke College at Brown University in Providence, majoring in philosophy, serving as president of her freshman class, and graduating in 1949. She met her future husband at Brown and they married soon after graduation, moving to Manchester the following year.

Besides her husband, she leaves two daughters, Deborah Ellis and Abigail Bellock, their husbands, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her son Jonathan. Her two brothers, Robert and Joseph Stone, died earlier.

The funeral will be private. A memorial service will be held when circumstances permit.

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