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Ten years after his death, a tribute to our friend Steve Ellis

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November 19, 2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the passing of Steve Ellis, who was the original editor of the Osceola publication when it was founded in 1982.

“Everybody misses him,” Bobby Bowden said. “I got him when he was pretty young when he worked for (the Osceola). He was a real good writer. We called him ‘Scoop’ because he always beat everyone to the story.”

Let me begin this tribute to Steve by sharing how Steve came to Tallahassee to become the Osceola’s first editor.

I was selling computers in Orlando and desperate for any information about FSU or recruiting I could find. My wife at that time, Kristi, worked at Kennedy Space Center and her boss received the Orange and White newspaper, which covered Clemson sports and recruiting. 

I loved high school football and disagreed with the O&W ranking of prospects. So I called the publication and Steve answered. I was polite. He was polite.  Steve and I enjoyed many long conversations about football prospects, his love for the newspaper business and Winter Park High School, where he ran track. We talked about family and his sister, Susie, who attended Florida State University. 

On one of those warm conversations, I said, “I wish Florida State had a publication like yours.” 

And he said, “If you ever want to start one, I’ll be your editor.”

The seed for this publication was planted and after a conversation with my wife and former college roommate John Oeschger the decision was made to start a paper.

When the 1981 Seminole Booster tour came to Sea World in Orlando, I brought a copy of the Orange and White and introduced myself, with a vision for a FSU sports publication.

Seminole Booster Executive Director Charlie Barnes assured me he, and FSU, were extremely interested. What I didn’t know is a national company had introduced a sports publication a couple of years before that went broke before the second issue was mailed. So, FSU wanted to be sure the next publisher – which became Osceola — didn’t fail.

We scheduled a meeting in Tallahassee with Bowden, Seminole Booster President Andy Miller, Athletic Director Hootie Ingram, marketing manager Dennis Boyle and sports information director Mark Carlson.

Hootie was rightfully concerned. Neither my partner, John Oeschger, nor I had any publishing experience. Hootie had been head coach at Clemson and was familiar with the Orange and White, and with a student reporter named Steve Ellis, so once I mentioned Steve would be our managing editor, Hootie was all in.

Mickey Andrews was at Clemson, where he was a defensive coordinator for Charley Pell and Steve was a student reporter. “I remember even then, when he was a student, that he would ask me specific details about the defense to get the story right,” Andrews said. “When I got here he was here and I always thought Steve did a good job of being factual about everything he wrote. It was never hearsay and I always respected him for that.”

By December 1981, Ellis was in Tallahassee and the Osceola, an independent publication with no funding from FSU, was born.

In addition to publishing Osceola on a weekly basis, we also published a monthly publication for Seminole Boosters creatively named: “Report to Boosters.” The Booster publication included stories about the business of athletics, Booster fundraising, donor features and a several select stories reprinted from the Osceola.

Osceola published the Booster publication for 20 years, until the Unconquered Magazine was born. This past April, when I retired from Seminole Boosters, the Osceola resumed publishing the Boosters’ Unconquered Magazine and UnconqueredMagazine.com.

None of this would have worked without Steve, who was a whirling dervish reporter and a mentor. After each issue of the Osceola made it to print, Steve would ask us to circle every fact we hadn’t know before we read the issue and mark every typographical or spelling error. The news nuggets exceeded the typos.

Steve told us, “If you don’t find at least 25 items that are news to you, fire me.”

“Nobody could beat him,” Coach Bowden said. “He was the type of reporter who you could say, ‘Don’t write this yet’ and he would honor his word but there were very few times he didn’t already know the story. He was everywhere.”

While Steve was perpetually disheveled (think Columbo), he was meticulous in his record keeping and fact checking. Each of us who knew him learned about the journey to the truth; a target that requires constant interviews, and multiple sources, to move the story as close to right as possible.

“What I remember about Steve was that he never wrote something that he wasn’t totally knowledgeable about; there was no conjecture,” former Seminole Baseball coach Mike Martin said. “You could be sure he researched everything he wrote. To this day his wife, Karen, and my wife, Carol, have lunch at least once a month.”

Many a story died during Steve’s process, perhaps because he couldn’t get a second source to corroborate his story, or to go on the record, and there were times he’d realize there was simply not a story. 

And, boy, did he know how to develop sources throughout the community. Trainers, equipment managers, secretaries, kitchen helpers or janitors, Steve talked to them all. At the time of his death, his cell phone was a national treasure, packed with a who’s who of sports personalities, hall of famers and friends.

“You will never know a more dedicated sports journalist than Steve,” said co-publisher John Oeschger. “No matter what the task at hand you weren’t going to outwork him even if that had him sleeping in the office a couple nights a week.   

“Steve loved the challenge of keeping the fans informed on the latest breaking sports news  He would do whatever it took to get the story whether it was waiting outside a coach’s office for hours or tracking down players to get a quote.”

Steve was a more aggressive reporter than I or anyone else who has covered the beat. 

He was relentless and as a result changed the way others reported FSU news. When we first arrived, it was the Tallahassee Democrat, the Flambeau and us. Steve was everywhere in spite of having very limited editorial help from our start up budget. FSU wasn’t used to having a reporter sit in on their athletic or Booster board meetings, which provided him a cornucopia of facts to fulfill his promise of delivering at least 25 news notes for readers each week.

There was a large atrium with couches in the Moore Athletic Center where Steve would set up his daily office, which consisted of a Radio Shack TRS 80 keyboard and a tape recorder. He would ambush coaches or players as they walked between meetings, workouts or lunch. 

I learned my passion for this business, which pales by comparison to his. I firmly believe his passion for the business was a genetic gift from his grandfather, who was a Michigan newspaperman. 

“Steve was very passionate about his writings,” said Jim Gladden, who coached outside linebackers and served as associate head coach. “We enjoyed watching him grow in his writing. Steve did a great job of covering the Seminoles and he and his wife, Karen, became part of the family. We truly miss a very knowledgeable and objective writer as we had in Steve. It is hard to believe he has been gone 10 years.”

Printers ink coursed through Steve’s heart which inevitably failed while he was filing a story on deadline. 

Other than the love for his wife Karen Detrick Ellis, or putting in the hours to tell a story, Steve loved Omaha and the College World Series. 

“We had some smiles out there together,” Martin said. “We had a season where we started putting things together late and wound up in Omaha. I saw him at the press conference and he had a big smile on his face. I said, ‘Oh, man, you can smile.’ It meant he could enjoy as much as 10-12 days of baseball and did he enjoy baseball.”

As much as Steve loved the business, the business loved him back.

After eight years with the Osceola, the Tallahassee Democrat had the good sense to give Steve the opportunity to work for a daily newspaper and we wished him well. But his influence lives on among our Osceola staff, who half-jokingly wonder What Would Steve Do with every breaking story.

Among all the tributes you read in his obituary, was this one: “Steve Ellis worked harder on his beat that anybody I have ever known in the business, yet he took the time to help the new guys, like me, who breezed through Tallahassee over the years and didn’t know nearly as much about FSU. Famous story, and true, is that when he was on his first honeymoon, he called in a recruiting story to the paper. THAT’S how hard the guy worked at his craft. You can bet your butt that Bobby Bowden will attend the funeral. He respected Steve, and rightly so.”

Steve was an influence and a mentor to many who worked at the Osceola including current Osceola and Unconquered writers and contributors: Bob Ferrante, Patrick Burnham, Kerry Dunning, Jim Crosby, Tim Linafelt, Tom Block, Keith Jones, Jim Henry, Melanie McCullough and Daniel Mitchell. Many other former employees appreciated Steve’s work ethic and  friendship, including Jill Cousins, Roger Smith, Dan Densmore, Rick Jones, Jim Lamar, Ira Schoffel, David Lamb, Chuck Loveless and Rod Meadows.

Appropriately, a scholarship fund in Steve Ellis’ name has been established at the FSU Foundation for the benefit of prospective sports journalists. The goal is to raise $50,000 and we are roughly $3,000 short of the goal. You can click this Spark link to contribute or send memorial contributions to:

Steve Ellis Memorial Scholarship Fund

Florida State University Foundation

2010 Levy Avenue

Tallahassee, Florida 32306-2739

We invite you to share your memories of Steve, or the stories he wrote, in the comments section below:

Sportswriters’ memories:

Tom D’Angelo, Palm Beach Post

One of the saddest moments of my life occurred when I received Jim Lamar’s phone call informing me that Steve had passed away. Steve was a valued friend and one of the best journalists I ever have known. Steve was the ultimate bulldog. He pursued every story with a passion. 

Not long before Steve’s death he and I were in the old workroom at FSU on the second floor of the Moore Athletics Center. The windows gave us a view of the parking lot and one day we looked out and saw FSU president, the late T.K. Wetherell, approaching his car. This was during the time of the rumors that we could be witnessing the end of Bobby Bowden’s legendary career. Not surprisingly, Steve shot out of his chair and bolted for the stairs hoping to catch the president. T.K., not knowing Steve was coming, had hopped into his car and gotten away before Steve could catch up to him. I remember thinking that probably was the only time T.K. successfully avoided Steve and he never even knew it. 

R.I.P Buddy. We lost you way too soon.

Bob Thomas, FSU Sports Information (Formerly Florida Times Union)

Steve Ellis loved kids and in the case of our two oldest children – Carly and Blaine – they loved spending time with “Mr. Ellis.” He enjoyed taking them out in his canoe on Shannon Lakes when they were little, and always remembered to bring them back small gifts from his annual summer vacations to national parks. In addition to being sports writing colleagues, Steve and I both ran cross country and track in high school and we could spend hours talking about running. Naturally, when Carly began running in high school he took a special interest in her career.

Carly was a sophomore at Chiles High when Steve suffered his heart attack, which also coincided with the cross-country postseason.

I visited Steve in the hospital a day before his catheter procedure and he was in great spirits. All he wanted to talk about was how Carly and her team were doing. The state meet was coming up that weekend – November 21 – and Steve said that he probably wasn’t going to be able to get out of the hospital in time to attend, but he would be thinking of her. Before I left the hospital that night he made sure I would share his best wishes with her. It would be the last time I would see or speak with Steve.

My wife, Kim, the kids and I were all crushed to learn of Steve’s passing. Carly and her team left for Dade City and the state meet the next day, while I stayed behind for the final home football game of the season against Maryland. The Noles needed a win to become bowl-eligible and the game was going to include a celebration of Mickey Andrews’ final game at Doak Campbell Stadium. (At the time we had no idea it was also Coach Bowden’s final game on the field named in his honor.)

That Saturday morning I sat at my desk in the FSU sports information office and watched the live stream of the 3A state championship race. Carly was running in third place up the final long hill to the finish line and I remember screaming and cheering her on at my computer in the office as she charged into the lead. Carly won the state title by less than a second, helping her Chiles team to their second consecutive team championship.

Tears of joy were still rolling down my face when Kim put Carly on the phone with me a few minutes later. We were crying together on the phone when Carly told me that she felt Steve’s presence throughout the race. Though the decided underdog going in, she was not going to be denied.

 It remains a wonderful memory for Carly, myself and our entire family; a wonderful reminder of a dear friend who had a huge heart and a wonderful soul. 

Bill Vilona, Senior writer/media relations for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Covered FSU from 1988-2004 for the Pensacola News Journal, Gannett News Service and the News Journal)

“Steve was more to me than just a close friend and sports writer colleague. From the time I first met him in 1988 when I began covering Florida State athletics for then-Gannett News Service, I found him to be someone you wanted as a neighbor, someone you wanted in time of need, away from the business side. 

He was caring, giving, funny, intense, insightful and sometimes all at the same time. One of my all-time favorite Steve stories, although I didn’t personally witness, was when he was at Tallahassee Regional Airport with the rest of FSU football traveling party after a road loss in mid-1980’s. As story goes, Coach Bobby Bowden had run over a speed bump or curb, unaware of the damage it had done to the underside of his car. 

Steve witnessed it and stopped his own car to get out running toward Bowden’s car. As he got there (and others saw what was happening, too), he was trying to explain to Bowden the car was damaged and couldn’t be driven because of gas leak. Bowden rolled the window down and said, “Hey buddy, good seeing you, see you tomorrow.” The second time Steve made his point and Bowden understood he was talking about his car. The good ending was the car was parked and Bowden returned home with friends while the car could be repaired. 

That was Steve. That is who he is. 

We also knew, among Steve’s fellow friends, there was a thing called: “Ellis Time.” Ellis time was when Steve told you, “I’ll be right there.” Or, “I’m out the door.” And then, you would be at a restaurant getting an appetizer when he showed up an hour late with a different reason for the delay.

But in my 40 years of being involved in sports journalism and the media business, I never met anyone like Steve. He had a passion for this business unlike anyone I have ever seen. His simple goal was to just outwork everyone, or out-write anyone in terms of content even if it meant all day, all night on the job. 

My one regret in my friendship with Steve was never convincing him to stop. Don’t let this job or any job get in the way of health or quality of life. To this day, I wish he could have heeded that principle. I miss him so much. 

And I would have loved seeing Steve transition to the current world, where sports writers now carry iPhones and are expected to take and edit video, use the phone to take photos, use the phone to provide social media posts and then when that is done, oh yeah, write a story. I would have loved to seen Steve’s reaction when the concept I call Triple Digital was now in effect.

I am grateful for his friendship and being part of his wonderful wedding in Fort Lauderdale with Karen, who is a Saint or Angel for being so great to him and putting up with Steve’s passion to work non-stop. I wish they could have spent many, many years together. 

I’ll stop now, because I’m crying too much. Steve made life covering FSU all the better. 

Jim Henry, Tallahassee Democrat Sports Editor and former Osceola editor

Steve may have been married to his job, but he also found love – and marriage – when he met Karen.

Jim Henry (with a smile) knew Steve was in love when he cashed in his Marriott reward points (viewed as gold by sports writers) and took Karen with him to Hawaii in 2005 to cover FSU baseball’s annual trip to the islands. Steve did take time to relax between games and stories, enjoying snorkeling (pointing out the different species of fish and later explaining them in great detail) and Margaritas. And poor Steve, white as Casper the Ghost, was sunburned beyond recognition early into the trip.

When sports writers from around the state gathered in Tallahassee for a football game, they often met on Friday nights for dinner. Steve often selected the restaurant and made reservations for the group. However, he was such a whirling dervish when it came to his work that, more often than not, Steve never showed for dinner. Even after he called to alert the group he was on his way.

Jim Lamar, former Tallahassee Democrat Sports Editor and former Osceola editor

My last conversation with Steve was in his hospital room — a night or two before the heart surgery he never woke up from. He could have no stressors in his room. No television. No radio. No laptop. No phone. He could have one visitor at a time, but our conversation was limited to almost a whisper. No emotion. Nothing that would get his blood pressure to spike even a smidge.

Most of our conversation will remain between us. We closed a few loose ends in our friendship that lasted more than 20 years. But two things he said that night I want to share:

First, he begged me to make the time to visit Yosemite National Park. Steve’s goal in life was to visit every national park. Every chance he had, he found a park and he explored. It was his passion. One of the best things I ever did for Steve — at least, that’s what he told me — was convincing the bosses at the Tallahassee Democrat we needed to cover the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in track and field. There were a bunch of FSU athletes competing, and I wanted Steve to document their journey. The Democrat had never before covered the Trials, and has never since. Steve spent almost two weeks in Oregon. And this was in late July/early August — right at the start of football coverage.

I ordered Steve to take a vacation around the Trials, but that was not necessary. Steve worked his schedule and figured out a way to visit at least three of the national parks in Oregon that trip.

So that night in the hospital, Steve ordered me to take my kids to Yosemite. “It will change your life,” he said.

It’s a promise I have yet to fulfill. But it’s on my list. And one day, I will visit.

The other thing he said that night is something I tell folks all the time, especially those folks who tend to put in way too many hours at work.

“Jim,” he said, “just listen. Tell me what you hear.”

All I heard was the beeping on his heart monitor.

“There’s no one from the Democrat here,” he said. “No phones. No printing press. No editors. No deadlines. No email. No nothing. They’re not here, Jim. It’s just us.”

We sat in silence for what seemed like 30 minutes. I’m sure it was just a minute or so. But I knew exactly what he was trying to tell me.

Steve never took a day off. Even on vacations, he was sending in stories or calling sources. He was late to his own wedding because he was working. He literally filed his last story for the Democrat in the middle of a heart attack. He wouldn’t let his wife call an ambulance until he emailed me his story.

Our last conversation, though, he was telling me it wasn’t worth it. He knew he worked himself to death. And he reminded me work won’t be there when you’re in that hospital bed, listening to that heart monitor, and wondering if that surgery will save your life.

Comments

  1. Scott ThomasReply

    I will always have fond memories of Steve Ellis. When I first started school in the early 80’s I signed up for a work-study program. Most of the jobs were in the cafeteria or library but I was fortunate enough to land a spot at The Osceola. The job was supposed to be just delivering papers to local newsstands, but Steve saw I had an interest beyond that. Before you knew it I had a press pass and was interviewing Joe Williams and George McCloud. Great memories! I also remember some long nights before a print deadline when we were putting the final layout together. These were the days of waxing machines, border tape and x-acto knives. Steve was a master of that lost art and the final product showed it. The Osceola has always been a class act both in its content and its layout. That’s a reflection of Steve Ellis. Thank you for this tribute and the chance to share some memories of one very cool dude.

  2. Bob FerranteReply

    There are so many stories to tell. Steve was a great friend. We would argue often. Mostly about him writing too many stories and missing deadlines. And calling in corrections after 11 p.m.

    But in 25 years in this business, I haven’t seen a reporter as tireless as Steve. He heard that comment often and took it as people saying he wasn’t a good writer. But he was. And at heart he was a storyteller, in print/online and in life. He loved telling stories and often couldn’t finish them without laughing.

    When you got a notebook from Steve, it was rich with detail. And he would always say “don’t cut the noteworthy.” It was the last note but every note had meaning.

    When he filed a long feature, it was very often filled with a range of quotes and anecdotes from various people. It was a challenge to read Steve as an editor because of the typos, but it was a pleasure to be the first one to read a feature from him because you would find yourself immersed quickly.

    • JD PearsonReply

      Great trubute to a great writer and better person…had thr privilege of working with Steve in the 1980s…

      Dan Pearson
      FSU Asst. SID
      1981-87

      • Jerry KutzReply

        Dan,
        Nice comments on Steve. Can’t believe its been 40 years. Let me spell that out – F…O…R…T…Y – years since you arrived at FSU at the same time we were starting Osceola. Time sure flies by when you are having fun. Flies by even if you aren’t, I’m told.
        Jerry

  3. Dan DensmoreReply

    I was hired at the Osceola after Steve took the position at the Democrat. We roomed together several times on road during basketball season that year. He was as friendly as a person you could meet. We really never talked much about reporting or writing and sports. It was mostly about travel and food. He really loved working at the Osceola with Jerry, John and Kristi. I must of found over hundred notepads in that office with notes from stories past. Jerry always told me most of it never went into print. Another funny tidbit, he always asked if I went by Dan, Daniel, or Danny. I said Dan. He called me Danny for the next three years. (Only my family called me that). He is definitely fondly remembered.

  4. Rob WilsonReply

    Note to readers: If you don’t readily recognize the name, Rob Wilson is FSU Associate Athletic Director of Communications and has served 24 years in numerous capacities of FSU sports information, spanning the majority of Ellis’s career on the beat.

    From my side of the fence, you can really only ask two things from a reporter. You can ask them to be accurate and you can ask them to be fair. Steve Ellis was always doggedly-accurate in his reporting.

    I found it most interesting that Jerry mentioned that countless stories went unplublished when Steve was at the Osceola (and Democrat by the way) because they didn’t meet his journalistic standard. I know for a fact that was the case, and it is that balance that we have lost primarily because of social media.

    I can’t count the number of times over the years that I’ve been in an office at FSU listening to a coach wonder aloud “how in the world” Ellis knew that.

    There was always a measure of comfort in having a reporter as dilligent as Steve covering your program because you knew he was turning over every rock. National media would breeze in occasionally touting their big scoop, but journalists in the southeast knew that if there was anything to it, Steve would have already written it.

  5. Jim CrosbyReply

    In the 43 years I have been covering FSU Sports as a writer, radio broadcaster, television sports anchor, play-by-play and sideline announcer, I have never met a harder worker in the media, nor a more professional one than Steve Ellis. The number of irons-in-the-fire he had going simultaneously was amazing.
    I used to sit next to him in the Press Box at Howser and he would be keeping a scorecard of the game, making notes for his game story, finishing up his story on the Football Spring game he had covered earlier that day, stopping to call different people he needed to interview for other story ideas he was working on, calling the Democrat newsroom to tell them when they could expect the story. Then he would turn to me and say “How’d that guy get on third.” He would be 3 or 4 batters behind and I would help him catch up and he would proceed on without missing a beat.
    When he worked for the Osceola I would have him on my call-in show that I had with the Old Maestro (Elgin White) sometimes two or three times a week. He was very popular and most often requested guest on a show on which we had guests such as Dick Howser, Red Barber, Ernie Johnson, Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, Governor Bob Graham and many others. He was on top of and ahead on all the Seminole stories.
    Still miss him. Steve Ellis you were the best.

  6. Patrick BurnhamReply

    Most of my memories of Steve are from my teenage days running around the FSU football building when my father was coaching there. He was a constant presence in the building and you could guarantee that he was going to be sitting on that long couch in the atrium around lunch time trying to catch a minute or two with a coach or player. I also knew him to a be an extremely nice person and approachable. I think he knew the name of every coaches wife and kid on the staff.
    He was great at doggedly chasing a story if there was one there but I also respected the fact that he didn’t feel they need to manufacturer a story, something that seems prevalent into today’s 24 hour news cycle where nothing stays current for long. Of course, I can remember hearing stories about his propensity to leave typos in his stories, I unfortunately suffer from the same thing in my writing, (you read what you thought you wrote when you proof your own articles) and of course can remember my mother, who worked at the Osceola has a proofreader for a couple of years in the mid-80’s, calling home to say that she was going to be late getting home from work because Steve was running behind deadline.
    Most of what I knew about FSU when we moved to Tallahassee in 1985 came from Steve and the Osceola. When my father took the job at FSU in the winter of 84/85, he would send me a copy of the Osceola in the mail each week while we were getting ready to move to Florida from Arizona. I used to wait with anticipation each week to read the latest on what Steve had to say about FSU football, basketball or baseball.
    Steve was one of a kind as is clearly evidenced by Jerry’s article and the moving tributes that have been posted by Jim Lamar, here and on Twitter, Jim Henry and many others. He helped make the Osceola a household name among FSU sports fans and set the bar very high for the great group of writers that have followed him. There are two names that will always be synonymous with the Osceola and one of course is Jerry and the other is Steve. While he was taken from this world much to soon he certainly left a void and a legacy when he left. One thing is for sure when you bring up his name around those who knew him… there is no shortage of laughter, smiles and stories….

  7. Melanie McCulloughReply

    Like so many others, I remember Steve as a tireless reporter and enthusiastic storyteller. Also, like many others, I remember Steve as a good friend. He loved telling stories of people and adventures at FSU, and also of his times at Clemson, his travels, his beloved Hawaii and the many national parks he visited.

    I am thankful for many shared visits and a couple of shared vacations with Steve, which were always fun. But one memory that stands out was when we covered the 1993 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament in a rare Charlotte snowstorm. Steve was one of the ringleaders when a bunch of us Florida writers wanted to play in the snow, and he led a late-night raid of hotel cafeteria trays-turned-sleds that led to lots of laughter and fun. He always had a sense of adventure, and while widely known (and rightfully so) for his work ethic, he had a tremendous zest for life.

  8. scott yanceyReply

    Great article. Never knew Steve but have talked to him a few times. He was an outstanding writer and I always enjoyed his columns. Big loss to all Seminoles when he left us too soon.

  9. Rick JonesReply

    Great tribute Jerry. Steve was one of a kind and with all due respect to everyone now covering the Seminoles, he has never been equaled as a beat writer. Steve knew everything and even when he didn’t he would tell you he did, haha.

    As mentioned above most of my conversations with Steve were not about Seminole football with Steve, he would ask about my coaching Babe Ruth baseball or about how my parents were doing, whom he had met.

    Steve was a special person and it’s great to read how many lives he impacted.

  10. David PonderReply

    The 1982 season carries great memories for me. Steve was part of that season and to this day, I still have quite a few of the editions of The Osceola from that year.

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