June 30, 1935 - April 11, 2021
Miami, Florida - Ellis, who was 85, passed away peacefully at his home in Morningside Park, Miami, Florida, on April 11, 2021. Ellis lived a full and colorful life, was a man of principle, a fierce advocate for the needy, and a rebel at heart.
Ellis was born on June 30, 1935 in Philadelphia, PA, to Herman and Emma Berger. In June 1950, the family moved to Miami Beach. While attending Miami Beach Senior High, Ellis worked part-time in the kitchen at Picciolo's, a popular Italian restaurant near the family's apartment at 3rd Street and Jefferson Avenue on South Beach.
Six months before graduation, Ellis dropped out of school to work at Picciolo's full-time. He was the bread and salad man there until 1958, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He became a radio operator, served in Germany (with Elvis Presley and General Colin Powell), and got his GED.
After his discharge in 1960, Ellis worked on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. He was part of the team that tracked the first space flight, by astronaut Alan Shepard, from Cape Canaveral to splashdown near Ascension. On R&R in Recife, Brazil, Ellis overstayed his visa, was caught up in a military uprising, and spent a short time in jail.
In 1963, Ellis returned to Miami Beach and Picciolo's. (He later regularly tipped restaurant servers 50-100%.)
In 1966, under the G.I. Bill, he enrolled in Miami-Dade Junior College and discovered his love of writing and vocation: journalism. He became editor of the student newspaper and was the first recipient of the Jimmy Burns Scholarship, named after the famed sports editor of the Miami Herald.
After graduating from Miami-Dade, Ellis enrolled in the University of Miami, but once again school lost out to the real world.
In 1968, while a student intern, Ellis was offered a job by the Miami News and withdrew from UM. In his fifteen years at the News, Ellis was a reporter, an editorial writer, and an assistant city editor. As a reporter, his "beat" was the Dade County school system.
This was a time of great turbulence and change in schools in Dade County and around the country. Ellis reported on U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins's ruling integrating public schools and U.S. District Judge Joe Eaton's decision limiting corporal punishment of students.
Ellis did not just report, he investigated. His articles revealed cronyism, waste and corruption in the school system. He covered Miami's Watergate connection. Lighter assignments were interviews with Muhammad Ali and Telly Savalas.
Though a person of deep humility, Ellis was stubborn on principles. His tenure at the News was not continuous; he quit five times over editors' decisions to change or not run his articles. Knowing his talents, the News always took him back. In hiatuses from the News, he was communications director for the state-wide teachers' union, the Florida Education Association, and also reported for the Sun-Sentinel. Or he worked at Picciolo's.
Ellis was respected for his fairness as a reporter even by his biggest target. After the News folded in 1988, the School Board hired Ellis as a dropout prevention counselor and student advocate and later as a career counselor at Miami Beach Senior High. Behind the scenes, Ellis wrote press releases and speeches for a Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent. He turned down a job in D.C. as aide to the late Congressman William Lehman.
In 2002, Ellis worked for the United Teachers of Dade as assistant director for media relations and in 2003-2006 as the public information officer for the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office.
Ellis was passionate about juvenile justice and dropout prevention. In a 1987 News article, "Dropout cure still elusive after 33 years," he wrote about himself: "no counsellor or teacher ever sat me down to ask about the problems I was obviously having. When I finally quit, no school official questioned the decision." Not mincing words as or more relevant now, another thirty-four years later, he chastised the School Board for cutbacks in hiring counsellors and psychologists and not giving teachers the time and tools to "make an impact on the dropout problem and the other crises that kids today must deal with."
And Ellis walked the walk, serving leadership roles in the Miami chapters of the ACLU and NAACP, the City of Miami Civic Investigative Panel, the Roxy Bolton Rape Treatment Center, the School Board's Gender Equity Network, and the Florida Child-Assault Prevention Team.
Outspoken about causes he believed in, Ellis was a champion of the underdog. He believed every person has redeeming qualities and deserves another chance.
Ellis is survived by his life partner, former Judge Mary Jo Francis, his sister, Suzanne Kessler, his brother, former Judge William J. Berger, his sister-in-law, Linda Berger, and his nephew and nieces, Gary Kessler, Ellen Kessler, Marla Berger, Lauren Berger, and Brooke Berger.
A memorial service will be held at a later date.
Donations in Ellis's memory can be made to the ACLU Foundation of Florida (aclufl.org
) and the MIND Institute at Miami Jewish Health (miamijewishhealth.org/mind-institute