William Russell (Russ) Ellis Jr. '59, M.A. '65, Ph.D. '69

Posted On - November 16, 2021

For someone who has achieved so much in his life, it is surprising that, for much of it, Russ Ellis was continuously haunted by one failure – one minute of time in 1956 that did not go as he had hoped. His description of what he long considered a defining moment of his life, the story of his life before and after it, and the impetus for how he came to accept it can be heard in an episode of the Meditative Story podcast.  It is compelling listening.

Russ Ellis - Student DaysRuss Ellis in his student days (photo credit: Arthur Dubinsky)

The way he came to do the podcast is also interesting: he was convinced to participate by the NY Times stringer who wrote about Ellis making his first album – of original songs, no less – this year at age 85.

These are only two of the fascinating chapters in the life of William Russell (Russ) Ellis Jr. '59, M.A. '65, Ph.D. '69. This triple Bruin also:

* helped recruit Rafer Johnson ‘59 to UCLA and was his teammate on UCLA’s first NCAA Championship track team;
* performed in a musical with George Takei ’60, M.A. ’64;
* was the first fulltime Black faculty member at the Claremont Colleges;
* helped launch the State University of New York at Old Westbury;
* taught at Yale;
* was the first sociology professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Architecture;
* was Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at Berkeley;
* is an accomplished stone carver, metal worker and artist;
When I went to UCLA, Westwood did not rent to black people. It was really constraining. UCLA had a pretty good tradition of black athletes, too, but they didn’t live on campus.

Ellis grew up near Compton, and went to Compton High School. His speed on the track – one year, he had the fastest quarter mile in the world for a brief time – brought him to the attention of UCLA. In an oral history, he spoke of his recruitment experience.

I remember the guy — Jack Sage — who recruited me to UCLA, who convinced me—he ran the half-mile at UCLA—and he came to me, and I’d just had a real dramatic episode at the Compton Invitational Meet. I’d already signed up to join the Navy as a senior, and he was interested in my interest in going to college on a track scholarship. I did go to UCLA, and he was a graduate student and, I think, an assistant coach. He really thought I was the cat’s meow, as a person, not just as a runner. So he wanted me to go to the Campus Crusade for Christ with him. I said, “Well, it’s not real high on my list, but I like you and if you want to go—.” And then he came back ashen, because they wouldn’t have me because I was a black. Now, I lost nothing. [laughs] I learned a lot, and it was nice having him there as a witness. In other words, he got the experience, and so for me, it was reinforcing that Jack knew that that stuff existed, right? Because he was taken completely by surprise. “This is Christian!” he was thinking, you know? “How could they do this?” Well, they could do that, and they did, and that is another of the places where the world was segregated.

UCLA Track Team, 1954UCLA Track team, 1954

Ellis became a Bruin, but he couldn’t rent an apartment in Westwood.

“When I went to UCLA, Westwood did not rent to black people,” he recalled recently. “It was really constraining. UCLA had a pretty good tradition of black athletes, too, but they didn’t live on campus. The co-op turned out to be a pretty good place and then for a year, I lived in a Jewish fraternity.

“I stayed at the Sammy House (Sigma Alpha Mu), so I saw how these Jewish guys saw the campus. The whole perspective on the campus was so different from other kids I knew. The black kids all hung out on the wall in front of Kerckhoff Hall – that was the meeting place where the athletes went. Living in a Jewish fraternity was just amazing, and probably helped my sociology a lot - standing on that border and looking over at that wall from their perspective.”

Returning the recruiting favor, Ellis participated in the effort to bring Rafer Johnson to UCLA and has written of an episode in that courtship – a classic Hollywood night on the town that nearly ended in multiple arrests – that his three degrees in sociology may have helped him interpret. Spoiler alert: Johnson chose UCLA, and led the track team to their first NCAA championship in 1956.

If that team title was a highlight of Ellis’ athletic career, what happened soon afterwards – on June 30 – would certainly be considered its nadir. It was on that day, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, that the event alluded to in the opening paragraph took place.

Ellis was running in the Olympic Trials, attempting to make the team as a quarter-miler, and he was expected to do so. He needed only to finish in the top four. Coming out of the final turn, he was in fifth place, and when he reached for his closing kick, it wasn’t there. Or, as he says in the podcast, maybe the other runners had kicks too. He finished fifth, failing to make the Olympic team. Johnson won the Silver Medal in the Decathlon during those games in Melbourne and the Gold at Rome in 1960.

Russ Ellis - 1956 Olympic TrialsEllis (second from left) in his fateful Olympic Trials race at the Coliseum (NY Times)

Whether by choice or necessity, Ellis took a different path. He earned his degree in sociology, worked for two years at System Development Corporation, the practical arm of RAND, and “had a little bit of a singing career; I was in a little musical called ‘Fly Blackbird’ – it was a ‘protest musical’ and George Takei was in it. It went to New York; I didn’t go with it – I went to graduate school.

“And then when I finished UCLA, my first job was at UC Riverside. My wife got a job the following year; we finished our dissertations and we applied competitively for a job at a then-new women’s college in Claremont, called Pitzer. We worked there together for three years. It remained a women’s college until 1970 and then it went co-ed.

“I went seeking my fortune at a new experimental college in New York – the State University of New York at Old Westbury. That lasted a year, but it was a tremendously exciting year, but then I got the job at Berkeley, so I decided to leave SUNY and come back to California.”

Inside, I’m haunted. I could have done something and I didn’t. My failure at the Coliseum is a tattoo on my forehead that only I could see.

He had become a husband and father and was well respected in academia, but one day at Berkeley, a feeling that he was a complete failure suddenly washed over him. He had not used his body to its full potential.

“I was born a gazelle,” Ellis says in the podcast, “but I did not live the life of a gazelle. Outwardly, I’m a success: a working-class kid with a turbulent childhood, who carved a path to a loving family and professional acclaim. But inside, I’m haunted. I could have done something and I didn’t. My failure at the Coliseum is a tattoo on my forehead that only I could see.”

Russ Ellis ’59, M.A. ’65, Ph.D. ’69Photo credit: Lewis Watts

When a faculty colleague came by and the subject of his Olympic disappointment came up, as it had on other occasions, his visitor “got in my face and said, ‘Why in the f*** don’t you grow up? You’ve got kids and a wife and a house and a job – maybe you can spend some time on what’s important now?’”

“I had never looked at it that way,” Ellis says, “but he was right. I’m still fascinated by why it has lasted so long; one of my theories is that those things often happen when you’re young and you’re still forming – you’re still in the oven, you’re still being cooked, so it gets cooked in as part of you – I think that’s part of what happened to me. A lot rode on it. A lot rode on it in relation to my father. And then it didn’t happen. It was burned in – for quite a while. I think talking about it publicly does make it a little less significant actually – that’s interesting. I’m surprised to learn that, but I think that is true.”

“Ironically,” he says in the podcast, “I counselled bereft students about this very fallacy all the time at Berkeley. Getting a B instead of an A isn’t who you are, I tell them, it’s just something that happened – an event. But my wisdom only flows outward.”

Ellis was a professor at a particularly interesting time, especially for someone with an artistic bent.

“My appointment was in the Department of Architecture in the College of Environmental Design at Cal, so I used to hang out with architects, and the world really changed for them in really big ways and a lot of them are doing things ... methodologies and architecture that are applicable to stuff that had nothing to do with architecture. The world changed by killing part of their work and then opening up whole new other areas for them to work in. It’s really fascinating to watch that.”

After about 20 years in the department, he moved into university administration as Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs for five years before retiring from academia. In his years of working with students, as well as in looking back at this own life, he has come to see the value in not charting or strictly following a particular plan.

“If you’re on a path, you wind up somewhere,” he says. “The thing that has bothered me about many students I have seen is that they have difficulty getting launched into the world – they are too planful – they think everything has to happen according to a plan. You’ve got to take risks. It’s better to be going somewhere than to be sitting, waiting for somewhere to come to you, because if you get out there you’ll run into things – you’ll see something out of the corner of your eye that makes you go permanently toward it and you’ll get engaged with something you knew nothing about. That’s risk, that’s happenstance, but how do you know that when you’re young?”

It's hard to imagine actually planning the life that Ellis has led, and it would not surprise anyone who knows him if something unexpected still lies ahead of him.

You’ve got to take risks. It’s better to be going somewhere than to be sitting, waiting for somewhere to come to you.

His songwriting started when he was repeating the name of his housekeeper’s helper, Eliza. It became the first song on his album, “Songs From the Garden,” which he spoke about in an interview with KQED.

“‘Eliza’ – that got me started and I was kind of on a roll,” he says. “I didn’t have to work at it at all – not that it’s so wonderful, but it was kind of nice having stuff that felt original. It was all over the map, I was free to do whatever I like. The muse visited for about a year and when it was over it was over and I wasn’t sad, I liked the product and then I went ahead and engaged a friend of mine to do a little fractal addition to the piece called ‘Lament’.”

Russ Ellis RecordingEllis in the recording studio (photo credit: Zoe Ellis)

It’s an eclectic album, featuring songs in many styles, including blues, pop and country, an example of the latter being, “Last Glass of Wine,” which sounds like it could have been a hit for someone like Ray Price or Charley Pride in the golden age of country music.

Whether he makes another album, does more art to complement his existing works, or does something completely different, Russ Ellis will always looks at things through the eye of a sociologist – one who has lived a life of variety that few can imagine and who has overcome the difficulties that one needs no help in imagining.

“[The issue of race] is always present – it’s not as bad as it used to be, but it’s often the case that, coming from a predominantly black world of friendships and associates and family and so forth, it has been, over the course of my life, variously odd being the only person in the room who’s black. The world in the United States – especially the world I’ve chosen to live in – is kind of used to that now. Some of us actually lived diversity. At UCLA – you know how that went – not everybody was doing it but, boy, there was a lot of diversity going on. And it’s been the same in the paths I’ve chosen to be on.”

He offers this advice regarding the current political/social situation:

“Just make sure you’re supporting some people who are trying to make the difference you’re trying to make. It’s just got to be a group of people working at something you believe in – that’s your only choice. You are small; you’re not big – you can make a big difference, but you have to think of yourself as at work at it, and working with some other people.”

Happily, Ellis now seems at peace with his life – all of it, from his many successes to his one notable failure. As he relates in the podcast:

“One afternoon recently, because of my age or the quietude COVID has brought, I find myself in a looking back mode, you know, taking stock...That race, why did it have such staying power? What might have been – aren’t we all plagued by that at some point?

“The trouble with what might have been is that it blinds you to what is. That day at the Coliseum was a loss... but what if it was a gift as well? When I stopped gunning single-mindedly for the Olympics all those years back, I slipped, chastened, into a life of peregrination; I wandered the landscape, finding joy here and there, never biting down hard on any one thing: a professor, an administrator, an artist, a singer, a partner, a father.

“For so long, I thought this peregrination was my great penance...Now I see it in a new light – it is my great life.”

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