Ellis inducted into CGA Hall of Fame

By Jeff Birchfield

   Life has taken James Ellis a multitude of places. From a farm in the Siam community to the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, to overseas service in Vietnam, stints in Alaska and Boston to now living and working in Washington, D.C., the retired Commander has led a full life.
   With a recent announcement, Ellis will forever be associated with one more location, the Coast Guard Academy Athletic Hall of Fame.
   "I found out about it in August," Ellis said of being named to the Hall. "I was surprised. It never occurred to me that I would be considered for it."
   A star linebacker on the 1962 Elizabethton High School football team, among his key rivals is someone well-known in Washington these days, former Science Hill quarterback Steve Spurrier. Ellis joked that he was one of few people living in the nation's capital that had the honor of tackling the current Redskin coach.
   With urging from his high school coach, Ellis left Elizabethton for the Coast Guard Academy after graduation, where he played football under NFL Hall of Famer Otto Graham.
   "My coach at Elizabethton, Tom Pugh, is the reason I went to the Coast Guard Academy," recalled Ellis. "He got a letter from Otto Graham and that started me down that road.
   "Otto Graham was a fascinating guy. He was modest talking about the pros. Some days in practice, he would throw the ball and you could see his skills. He was an All-American basketball player too, just a marvelous athlete."
   While at the Coast Guard Academy, Ellis earned varsity letters in three sports for the Bears -- football, wrestling and baseball. He was a member of the undefeated 1963 football team, a co-captain of the wrestling team and the starting catcher on the baseball team.
   Athletics came naturally to Ellis, but other parts of the experience proved to be more of a hurdle.
   "I was absolutely not ready for the Coast Guard Academy," Ellis remembered. "I was completely unprepared for the military and academic side. It took the first semester to adjust. The first year was academically challenging, but I was in good shape from there on."
   By the end of his term, he had won the 1966 Navy League Award, an honor given to the first classman who excels in leadership, athletic ability and academic achievement.
   "The Coast Guard Academy is a great education for free," said Ellis. "It's listed as one of the three most difficult places to get an education and is ranked among the top 10 academic universities. It didn't cost anything but four years of service, which I thoroughly enjoyed."
   Upon graduation, he ascended through the ranks of the Coast Guard structure. Among the awesome responsibilities he was given included being Commanding Officer on both the Cape Morgan and Point Orient ships. He also served as Executive Officer of Division 12 in Vietnam and Commanding Officer of the CG Advisory Group in Vietnam.
   The civilian life of Ellis has been just as interesting as the military side. He earned a Juris Doctorate at George Washington University and attended the Sloan School of Management at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
   In 1985, he started his own law firm. For 15 years, he was the managing partner in Ellis, Dyer and Joseph, a firm specializing in maritime law. Earlier this year, he became the senior partner in Blank Rome, LLP.
   "Coming out of my background at the Coast Guard, it was natural to move in maritime law," said Ellis. "I had spent 15 years of my life on ships at the Coast Guard. I work on interesting shipping projects. This new project I'm working on will mean traveling back and forth to Spain.
   "The challenges get bigger all the time in the maritime business, The aftermath of 9/11 has affected it so much, particularly dealing with importers and exporters. It's challenging on the business side, drawing up contracts and putting the financing together."
   Ellis takes no offense at being called a Washington insider. He works in the Watergate complex and has relationships with several important political figures. Ellis has met U.S. Presidents, from Jimmy Carter to George Bush.
   From 1980-82, Ellis worked directly with the Secretary of Transportation as a special assistant.
   "I have been around many of the senior political people in Congress and the Administrations," said Ellis. "In that way, Washington is a pretty small town. Drew Lewis, the Secretary of Transportation I worked with, was a fascinating person. I got to see up close, being his special assistant, that he knew to make things happen in Washington."
   Of current politicians he ranks among the best, the senate majority leader from here in the Volunteer State.
   "Bill Frist is one of the most interesting people serving now," said Ellis. "He is doing a great job. He's doing the right things for the right reasons. He is a genuine nice person."
   Ellis maintains ties to this area, visiting his wife Maggie Brady's relatives in Boone and friends here in Carter County two to three times a year. The father of 15 year-old Alexis, he is still listed as a member of First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton.
   Many accomplishments he has been able to achieve in what now must be referred to as a Hall of Fame career, Ellis credits the camaraderie shared with those at EHS and a foundation set in athletic competition.
   "I went back to my high school reunion and I know the class of '62 still remains pretty close," said Ellis, who lived off Pine Hill Road during his formative years. "I remain friends with several people I played with at Elizabethton. I try to visit Johnny Mills, Dr. John Johnson and Ray Huskins when I'm in town. I owe so much to sports. Sports is a great teacher of life's lessons I've always believed."