William Ellis, 55, authority on learning disabilities

November 12, 1995|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

William Ellis, a nationally recognized learning disabilities expert whose curiosity about why one of his students had difficulty learning led him to what became his life's work, will be honored at a memorial service at 2 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Stony Run Friends Meeting House, 5116 N. Charles St., in Baltimore.

Mr. Ellis, who first taught at Friends School and later was the first director of its middle school, died Oct. 19 of cancer at Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He was 55.

He became a sixth-grade teacher and drama coach at Friends School in 1963, and, in 1968, became assistant headmaster of St. James School in Monkton, where he encountered a student who had difficulty learning to read.

He returned to Friends in 1970 to become director of the middle school, one of the first independent middle schools in Maryland. At Friends, he developed a program not only for students with learning disabilities but for pre-adolescent students.

"He was ahead of his time. I brought him back to Friends to create a middle school when the the middle school concept was just developing," said Byron Forbush, the school's headmaster.

"He was creative, sensitive and an able child advocate who developed programs that not only included the child but the faculty as well. Early on he realized that children had different learning styles and education had to focus on the student with learning disabilities. Because of his work here, his career really took off."

After leaving the school in 1983, Mr. Ellis was president of the Maryland branch of the Orton Society and later national president of the organization until 1984. The Orton Society is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to the study and treatment of dyslexia.

"He was a warm and caring individual his legacy surely includes the enrichment of the lives of all dyslexic children," Lin Baumann, director of membership and branch services of the Orton Society, said of Mr. Ellis.

He became headmaster of the St. Paul School in Largo in 1983, and, since 1991, had been director of professional services for the New York-based National Center for Learning Disabilities.

"Last fall, Bill masterminded a national summit in Washington, D.C., on learning disabilities, which featured Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Cabinet members Robert Reich, secretary of labor, Richard Riley, secretary of education, and Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services," said Rose Crawford, assistant education director of NCLD.

"It was the first time in history that a collaborative summit took a look at learning disabilities and where we had to go in the future," Ms. Crawford said.

"I like to think he's working with the dyslexic angels now," said his wife of 32 years, the former Gillian Lawry.

"A boy of 10 that he struggled to teach how to read called me and said he read in the paper that Mr. Ellis had died. That was the greatest tribute to Bill of all, and it gave me goose bumps. That little boy is now 26," Mrs. Ellis said.

Born and raised in Godalming, Surrey, England, Mr. Ellis came to Friends School as an American Field Service exchange student and graduated in 1959. After earning a certificate of education from Southampton University in 1963, he earned a bachelor's degree and master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Timothy Ellis of Winter Haven, Fla.; a daughter, Heidi Ellis of Tampa; his parents, William and Vera Ellis of Godalming; two brothers, David Ellis of Sussex, England, and Brian Ellis of London; and a sister, Joan Ellis of London.

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