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Into the Sunset

Caring and accepting, Ellis always worked to bring out the best in students

Rick Ellis with Kris Hart and recent graduate Hayley Wynne

(Rick Ellis [right] with Kris Hart [left] and recent graduate Hayley Wynne)

From The Ichabod - Winter 2022
By Jeremy Wangler

Embarking on a life-changing journey, Daniel Martin entered Rick Ellis’ office at Washburn University and the first thing to catch his attention was Ellis’ footwear.

“I was like, ‘Where'd you get those nice boots?’” recalled Martin, bsw ’21. “And he was like, ‘Ah man. I’ve got 150 pairs of boots.’ Then he showed me the pictures, and I was like, ‘This guy's a real cowboy. The real-deal McCoy cowboy.’”

When Ellis asked Martin about himself, Martin explained how he previously went to prison for eight years.

“And Rick was like, ‘You survived? Well, what do you want to do with your life?’”

Martin said he wanted to help people with drug and alcohol problems.

“If you want to be a leader in the community, I'll help you do that,” Martin recalled Ellis saying.

Interactions like those were common during Ellis’ 30 years at Washburn. The longtime professor and director of Washburn’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement died on Sept. 22, 2021. His legacy includes starting Learning in the Community and the Bonner Scholars program at Washburn to connect students with service work opportunities. LinC celebrated its 25th anniversary this year and Washburn has been a Bonner Scholar school for 20 years.

Cowboy Persona

Ellis projected a rugged cowboy persona, almost always wearing boots and a hat. Perhaps comfort in his own skin inspired others to find their true personalities and live them.

Rick Ellis sitting on a stool in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat“Rick saw people for their potential,” Becca Spielman, bas ’05, said. “He saw them for who they were and didn't try to change that, but also saw them for who they could be. The coolest thing in the world is to know he has left a legacy, and probably for generations to come. There might even be tall tales about Rick Ellis. He's the Paul Bunyan of Washburn.”

Spielman earned a degree in human services and is now program director of the Center for Safety and Empowerment at the YWCA in Topeka. She came to Washburn from Paola, Kansas, and said she had few interactions with minorities or impoverished people growing up. LinC changed her worldview.

“Being immersed in communities and meeting people I've never met before and never understood before – that I had sympathy for but not empathy for – was really interesting,” Spielman said.

Spielman said Ellis always provided an open door and warm heart, especially when she came out as LGBTQ.

“Rick was probably one of, if not the only person in a lot of ways in my past who I wasn't really worried about his reaction,” she said. “His goal was just to care for you.”

Hayley Wynne, bsw ’17, msw ’18, grew up in northwest Kansas and attended Palco High School, a school of about 35 students. Extracurricular activities like community service weren’t commonly available, but she had a desire to be involved in service work. She was drawn to Ellis’ contagious enthusiasm during a campus tour.

“He's very passionate about service,” Wynne said. “The way he talked about it, made it more attractive and interesting. My initial thought after meeting Rick was, I want to hang out with this person and learn about what he's done in his life.”

She became a Bonner Scholar, earned a social work degree and is now a psychotherapist working with adolescents and adults.

“One of the valuable things about Bonner is it pushes you to consider life outside of your normative way of thinking,” Wynne said. “You learn how to constructively disagree with each other, which I was not comfortable doing before college. Because Rick was so confident and assured of himself and in others, there was permission to do that, which was a breath of fresh air.”

Getting Students to Believe in Themselves

Kristine Hart, mcj ’03, met Ellis as his work study student while she was in graduate school. She started working at Washburn fulltime in 2002 and became associate director of LinC and a lecturer. She became interim director of the program in October.

“Rick taught me the experiences for the students are good, but it's also having someone believe in them, be their biggest cheerleader and care about what they have to say,” Hart said. “It was always the student who did the real work and deserved the kudos and accomplishments in his mind. I think that went a long way with students.”

Ellis made sure the staff in the LinC office put students first. That meant putting down what you were working on and sometimes just being someone students could talk to and be comfortable around. Hart is confident they will continue offering similar opportunities.

“We’re giving students experiences that will make them more conscience of what's happening in their community and their world and increase their exposure to diverse people, places and ideas,” Hart said. “That makes people successful members of society.”

Martin is working on his master of social work degree at Washburn. He wants to help inmates and former inmates and feels like he already made breakthroughs as a Bonner Scholar.

“I believe you build a better community one person at a time,” Martin said. “I love dealing with this population, but some go back to drugs, some don't. Like Rick told me, ‘As long as you can get one, you did your job.’ And everybody that I impact, they feel the residual from what Rick did through me.”

Rick Ellis and students on a tour boat

(Rick Ellis and students during a service trip to Nicaragua)

Spring 2022 The Ichabod cover. Sculpture on the lawn north of Memorial Union

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