JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Richard “Dick” Ellis spent most of his life on the airwaves, and this summer, his legacy will be added to the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame to honor his dedication to local broadcasting.
Born in Roan Mountain in 1926, Richard Ellis knew from a young age that he would be speaking to the entire region before long.
“By the time he was a young teenager, he knew he wanted to be in radio,” Dianna Ellis Cox, Richard’s daughter, said. “He saved his money and bought a voice recorder to practice so he could become a good announcer. He knew very young. He never wavered, he knew exactly what he wanted.”
Ellis served in the United States Navy as a young man and later graduated from East Tennessee State College before it earned university status. Ellis worked behind the scenes and on the air starting in the late 1940s, but his most recognizable roles on local radio were that of “Little Richard” and the voice of the ETSU Buccaneers and Science Hill.
Ellis also spent time as a WJHL-TV anchor between 1953 and 1960, when the radio side of the station was sold and Ellis remained. About a decade and a half later, Ellis embarked on his life’s largest project: the creation of WETS, ETSU’s National Public Radio (NPR) station.
In 1974, Ellis and several other local radio figures banded together to bring NPR to Northeast Tennessee. The station had been years in the making and grew out of ETSU’s campus radio station which was very limited at the time.
“Once NPR came along, then you have lengthy news programs,” George Devault, the member of the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame board that nominated Ellis, said. “Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and so forth. Dick was very instrumental in getting that going here in the Tri-Cities.”
Ellis served as the station’s first manager and shaped generations of broadcasters in the region, including former station manager Wayne Winkler.
“I always had that kind of a feeling about Dick,” Winkler said. “That he was going to watch over all of us here at the station and wanting us to do what we did well and whether it was really something that fit in with what was going on at the radio station.”
Winkler said Ellis was one of the first people in radio to really give him a chance and always gave new ideas a shot whether or not he thought they’d work.
“He was a guy who would hear you out,” Winkler said. “You had an idea, he’d give you a chance to run with it. And sometimes it works, sometimes it didn’t. But he was there to give you a chance.”
After a while, WETS outgrew its home and needed an upgrade. Rather than find a new house to move into, Ellis campaigned for a brand-new building on campus and remained directly involved in its design.
“Everything that WETS is and has ever been kind of dates back to him,” Winkler said. “Even though it’s been 30 years since he’s gone, I think about him all the time and remember the way he approached certain things. He made a pretty good role model.”
In 1993, just two weeks after the WETS building was dedicated in his name, Ellis passed away. Friends and family remarked on how healthy he looked during the dedication ceremony, and some said he had simply accomplished what he set out to do. Thirty years later, Ellis is being added to the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame to further document his legacy.
“It’s very honoring for someone to come to you and go ‘I remember listening to your dad when I was a kid. I remember listening to your dad as a young adult, and he meant a lot to me,'” Cox said about her father. “But anybody that loses a parent, they love hearing that stuff.”
For many of Ellis’s grandchildren, the induction ceremony is a new way to see their grandfather’s life.
“There were only three grandkids alive when he died,” Cox said. “And those three are super excited because they barely have memories, but they do have memories.”
Ellis is set to be inducted during a hall of fame ceremony in July, and his descendants are scheduled to attend and share his story.