James Ellis (1959-2023)
Ellis became involved in athletics at a young age, beginning his career in the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Department as a teenager before joining the department full time in 1978. After a promotion to Recreation Supervisor in 1980, Ellis continued to move up in positions — serving as the department Athletic Director for over three decades and the Assistant Director for six years before taking on the top position as Director in 2017.
His involvement with USA Softball also spanned three decades as he served as the USA Softball of Tennessee District Commissioner for over 20 years in addition to a six-year stint as vice president of the organization. Ellis took over as State Commissioner in 2015 and was appointed to the USA Softball Board of Directors in 2020. Along with these leadership positions, Ellis also played various roles within the Legislative, Commissioner Appointments, Membership and Ethics Committees in addition to directing hundreds of invitational, state, regional and national tournaments over the years. His long list of accolades earned him enshrinement into the USA Softball of Tennessee Hall of Fame in 2017.
Ellis will be remembered by co-workers and friends for his passion in area youth and for the community he served.
James Ellis, the former Johnson City Parks & Rec Director who also served as USA Softball Commissioner for Tennessee, died Tuesday after an extended illness. He was 64.
Ellis was remembered by co-workers and friends for his passion for area youth and the community he served.
Joe Ebarb, athletic manager for Johnson City Parks & Rec, was a lifelong friend of Ellis. They started together with the Parks & Rec department as teenagers. Ebarb moved on to Eastman where he retired before coming back to the department, while Ellis stayed with the city of Johnson City. He retired in February.
Ellis’ first job was handing out roller skates at the Legion Street Rec Center. He joined the department full-time in 1978 and was promoted to recreation supervisor in 1980. Ebarb and Ellis crossed paths numerous times over the years as volunteer coaches, umpiring games and other roles.
Even after Ellis retired, he was a trusted source of knowledge the department could count on.
“Working with James through athletics was awesome. He only wanted the best for the kids,” Ebarb said. “He wanted Johnson City to have the best youth programs available and we were there when he retired. James was a wonderful man, but we lost so much more with all the years of experience you could count on. You can’t replace that.”
Ellis served as athletic director for the department for over three decades and another six years as assistant director before being promoted to the top position in 2017. In whatever role he had, his dedication was second-to-none.
“I never met a man who had more passion for his job than James did Parks & Rec,” Ebarb said. “He lived it 24/7. It wasn’t an 8-to-5 job for James Ellis. Whether it was Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon or through the week, you could find him checking on the facilities and seeing what had to be done or what needed to be done.”
It wasn’t the financial rewards, but the giving back to the community that meant the most to Ellis. He had the respect of his employees, who enjoyed the fact he could be serious, but also cut up at times.
“He was a crucial part of the city of Johnson City’s team,” said Bill Fuller, Johnson City golf maintenance manager. “Speaking as one of his employees, he is going to be greatly missed. He was a good leader, a great boss and I considered him a friend.”
Ellis was greatly involved in so many projects throughout the city from developing Winged Deer Park to fixing a flooding problem in the outfield at then Cardinal Park. He had experience in so many areas including administration, working with the Convention and Visitors Bureau and other civic groups. His loyalty to the department is something that brought him admiration amongst his peers.
“I know of no one who guarded the brand of Johnson City Parks & Rec more than James Ellis,” said Jim Hughes, the city’s former director of golf. “He started as a kid working there and didn’t really work anywhere else other than his ties with USA and ASA softball. It was all about the community.”
Ellis served as the Tennessee ASA/USA Softball District Commissioner over 20 years. He also served as a Vice President for ASA/USA Softball for six years and remained a member of softball council for years after that. He was inducted into the USA Softball Hall of Fame in 2017.
Hughes remembered while they had some heated discussions, they would always shake hands at the end of the day. He knew Ellis’ heart was in the right place, looking out for his community and department.
“We never saw eye-to-eye 100% on anything and had some pretty good disagreements at times,” Hughes said. “But, we always tried to reach a compromise that was best for the city, Parks & Rec and the employees. In so many ways, he was like a family member.”