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March 15, 2020

Dr. Nolen Ellison: A Life 'Driving' to the Basket of Achievement


Dr. Nolen Ellison:


Skin Color 'Ignored' in Life ...'Driving' to the 'Basket' of Achievement...."I knew I was as good as anyone else...'

PHOTO: Dr. Nolen and Dr. Carole Ellison with granddaughter. Last fall.

by jim richmond

Dr. Nolen Ellison has been a 50-year hero, and former colleague and mentor of mine, long, long before my Kellogg Foundation days.

A true leader, scholar, educator and friend. Tough. Strategic. Demanding. Visionary. 

(Not a shabby basketball player either. NCAA Division 1 All American point guard while at Kansas, then both pro basketball and pro baseball offers.)

Instead, went to Michigan State (after Kansas) to earn his doctorate...(on a Kellogg Foundation scholarship for future community college leaders!), then became the youngest community college CEO in America (Seattle District), then to the 30,000 student Cuyahoga District in Cleveland where we worked together, he as CEO, building and getting a tax levy approved for three new community college campuses. 

Before retiring, he spent 9 years as HR Block Endowed Professor at the University of Missouri.

And we recently reconnected over Facebook and have had long phone conversations. Always about working together in Cleveland…. About leadership challenges and approaches for educating youth. (The Ellisons now live in a Washington (state) retirement suburb.)

(But, (on the phone recently,) he said: “I recall after Kansas …  then at MSU one day... a fellow from Kellogg was visiting, and he said to me: 'Nolen, you can head these (community college) institutions one day."

And of course, Nolen did that, and much more.

Wife Carol has an earned doctorate and has been a national advocate and leader in early childhood development.

And again, over the phone, I thought: “He has the mental passion, speed, drive and talent of his All-American days leading the Kansas Jayhawks ….and major institutions of learning.  Speed thinks and talks on the phone as he always did.”

In Cleveland, 40 or so years ago, building the three campuses, our two cars were often alone in the downtown College District parking many Saturdays.   I learned from Nolen how to REALLY focus and work hard. And his door was always open to me……

Could we do something like that again…as two old men?

"Jim, we need to write a book before we get too old, he said the other day. (He's 78. I, 75.). He went on about community colleges, young people, his belief that he was always as good as any white guy, and therefore acted and was that way throughout his life.

Well, we have very few real heroes and role models in life, don’t we? (I have 2)

And Lifelong connections are surprising, are they not? :-)

Nolen and I are perhaps meeting in our Kansas City hometown hopefully by this summer to kick around the collaborative book project.

Who knows……? Just lucky to have known and learned and been a friend of this great man.