Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, new Champaign Rotary President Janet Ellis-Nelson chats with staff writer Paul Wood. Ellis-Nelson, who retired in 2014 as principal of Unity West Elementary School, has a long history of service to the community. Film fact: She’s the cousin of the late Donald O’Connor of ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’
Where do you come from and how did you get here?
I was born and raised in Danville. I came to Champaign in 1975 to do my student teaching, and, except for a six-year leave, which took me to Wichita, Marion and St. Louis, I’ve been here ever since.
What made you decide to go into special education?
When I was a sophomore in college, I met with my guidance counselor, who told me if I stayed in elementary education, I would not be able to get a job when I graduated from college. He told me special education teachers were greatly needed, and I should switch to special education. I was very disappointed because I had wanted to be a first-grade teacher since I was in first grade, but I started volunteering as a Special Olympics coach, enjoyed it and decided to switch my major.
What did you find most satisfying about working with special education students?
I worked primarily with students who had mild disabilities, such as learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. When I first started teaching, the students were served in “self-contained” classes in which all the students had special education labels. In 1990, the laws changed and students that had always been educated with other special education students were “mainstreamed” or placed in classes with “general education”/non-disabled students. I was working at Centennial High School at the time, and because being in “general” classes without any support was so different, these students were failing. I was hired as the collaborative consultant. I started a tutoring program where any student in the school could come to get help, and I taught classes in how to study and become organized.
What are some of your favorite memories of being principal at Unity West Elementary?
Hanging out with the students at recess and lunch, implementing wellness initiatives for the school, dressing up for Halloween, attending concerts and talent shows, observing and evaluating many great teachers, and getting to know the parents are all treasured memories.
You’re the incoming president of Champaign Rotary. What attracted you to Rotary in the first place? What will you bring to the role?
When I taught at Centennial High School, I served as the faculty sponsor of Interact, a service organization for high school students that was sponsored by Champaign Rotary. My husband, Doug Nelson, also became a very involved member of the club. We hosted several long- and short-term exchange students, Group Study Exchange members and were very involved in many aspects of service. I knew when I retired and had a lunch hour, I wanted to join the club and have something meaningful to do in my retirement. I doubt that many people are as passionate and dedicated to Rotary as I am so I hope that my passion is transmitted to our club and to new members. I think my experience as a school administrator may help me serve effectively as president of the club.
Speaking of Rotary International, you were awarded the Five Avenues of Service Award. Obviously, you’ve done a lot of volunteer work.
Rotary International has five areas of service: club, vocational, community, international and new generations or youth. Each club’s committees are divided into these areas of service. I was interested in helping with all five avenues, have been volunteering for 15 different committees and co-chairing five of them. Peter Tomaras, who has been a member of Champaign Rotary for 53 years, nominated me for this award
Do you (or did you) enjoy bell ringing for the Salvation Army? Are you a winter person?
I am definitely not a winter person. Almost every member of Champaign Rotary and Centennial Interact rings bells for the Salvation Army on the second Saturday in December each year, typically one of the coldest days of winter. I enjoy seeing the generosity of the community and contributing to such a worthwhile cause. Champaign Rotary typically donates at least $14,000 to the Salvation Army each December.
Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?
I don’t indulge in it very often, but I do love fine jewelry.
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
I would love to go to the Mabafweni Village in Eastern Kenya to witness the water well Champaign Rotary is drilling for the Dr. Ndumi Faulu Academy, with help from other Rotary clubs and community support. The school currently has no source of water.
Tell me about your favorite pet.
When my husband Doug and I were first married, he had a Maine Coon cat named Reebok. Reebok had the best personality, more like a dog than a cat. We could take him out in our boat, and he loved to play pranks on Doug.What’s your favorite sports team?
I have three favorites: Anything Illini, Unity Rockets or Centennial Chargers.
What would you order for your last meal?
My mom’s boiling beef and noodles and apple streusel.
What is your favorite type of music and why?
I love classical, jazz and choral music and have tickets to these performances for the upcoming season at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. If I am alone at home or in the car, I usually listen to musicals or oldies. Donald O’Connor was my cousin, and musicals were the only source of culture I was exposed to growing up. When I was a teenager, I attended dances where live bands played every Friday and Saturday night. Fun times I think about when I listen to those old songs.
What’s the happiest memory of your life?
The birth of my daughter, Natalie, is my happiest memory of my life, but my wedding to Doug and the birth of my granddaughter, Mira, come in close.
Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?
Harriett Tubman because she risked her life to help others.
What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?
My first job was babysitting. I made 50 cents an hour for babysitting four kids, making lunch and dinner, giving baths and picking up their house. It was great preparation for being a mother.
What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?
After I received my master’s ineducational organization and leadership, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. I was several classes in when my husband held a research conference for massage therapists in Lake Geneva, Wis. He wanted me to attend all the sessions, and I wanted to attend them, but I had to read 2,000 pages and turn in a paper by Tuesday. I missed a significant part of his conference. I finished my reading and turned my paper in on time but quit the Ph.D. program. I knew I didn’t want to be a superintendent of schools, and I wouldn’t get a pay raise for having a Ph.D., so I decided just to focus on attending workshops and reading books that would help me be a better principal.
Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?
I really only have one regret in life. When I was a junior in high school, I had the opportunity to go to France with my French teacher and other students from Danville High School. I decided not to go because none of my friends were going. I did not go to France until last fall, almost 50 years later.
How do you handle a stressful situation?
It has taken most of my life to be able to deal with stress calmly, but I can now, usually without anyone knowing I am stressed. Calling BodyWork Associates for a massage or doing some form of exercise also helps. If there is long-term stress or a big situation, I am not certain how to handle, I will talk to my husband, one of my best friends or someone I know who has gone through something similar.