Wisecracking philanthropist Bob Ellis and wife Sandy open their hearts for Nevada’s underserved kids and schools
Bob Ellis is on his cellphone again, this time making a midday call to the principal of the Henderson elementary school that bears his name.
“Did I wake you up there, principal?” he asks.
He wants to make an appointment for the following morning.
“What time is your AA meeting?” he asks.
But Principal Shauna Hall is onto this man and his routine.
“No, Bob,” she shoots back. “I went before I came to work at 6 a.m.”
“And you went for drinks right afterward?” Ellis says. Then he lets loose with a deep laugh, a “Ha!” loud enough that he glances around the restaurant where he’s having lunch in a nanosecond of self-consciousness.
For Ellis, it’s just a bit of fun with an authority figure, a good-natured razzing from a 76-year-old man who was, at best, a C-student all those years ago. He’s a local boy made good who dropped out of college after just one semester, who made his fortune in the family trucking business after admitting that he had a drinking problem. He quit that day. Yeah, Bob Ellis, the smiling prankster everyone calls “Bobby,” likes to have his laughs.
For her part, Hall also relishes the regular banter with a benefactor who is quick to assist the 600 students at Robert and Sandy Ellis Elementary School, located in the master-planned Inspirada community.
When it comes to supporting public education — whether it’s downtrodden older schools, underprivileged students, or even this expansive new school — the Henderson couple is among the most generous philanthropic duos in the state. In the past 15 years, they have donated millions to more than two dozen schools, mostly in Clark and Lincoln counties. Each December, they sponsor assemblies at which they distribute shoes, socks, and toys to thousands of students who would otherwise not receive anything for the holiday season.
“Until you get into this, you really don’t know what it’s like,” Sandy says. “Kids send us cards and letters expressing their appreciation. They come up to us to say how thrilled they are.” The couple’s donations, she said, have also revealed the poverty that exists across Nevada. “A 9-year-old boy said, ‘Mrs. Ellis, thank you. You have no idea how much I needed these new shoes. Mine were torn and dirty. And I love the color black.’”
If Bobby wasn’t so busy delivering his one-liners, it might be enough to make him cry. There’s just no stiffness to the guy, not an ounce of pomp and circumstance. Everyone who knows him —students, teachers, school administrators, mayors, governors, senators — agrees on this: Bobby Ellis is the joker in the deck, the liveliest of wires, the kid at heart, a self-made businessman who does serious things but who never takes himself seriously.
“People never know whether I’m telling the truth,” he says. “Back when I was a kid, my great-grandmother used to say, ‘Bobby, why are you always lying?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m not lying. I’m just stretching the truth, grandma.’” He lets out another “Ha!”
Neither Bob nor Sandy come from monied roots — his father started out trucking hay, Sandy was raised by a single mother — but once they married, they made a pledge that if they ever did come into sizable wealth, they would give something back to the community.
“Bobby is the genuine article, the real deal,” says former Nevada governor and U.S. Senator Richard Bryan. “He’s the epitome of the good citizen, someone who benefitted from hard work and who is at a place in his life to pay something back. My dad had a name for it, ‘paying your civic rent,’ and Bobby has paid his civic rent.”
Ellis is a compact 5-foot-9 with glasses and carries a thick wallet, stuffed with too many credit cards, which he keeps wrapped in a yellow elastic band. He’s always on, but Shauna Hall no longer blushes at his material. “I come to expect it now,” she says. “He may have missed his calling as a standup comedian. But he also has the biggest heart in the world.”
Last May, for the school’s opening-day ceremony, Hall limited Ellis and his wife to 20 guests for the event. When the couple arrived, they were stunned to find that school officials had organized 400 friends and acquaintances.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Ellis recalls. “I looked at that principal and I told her, ‘I’ve been set up.’”
Bobby Ellis grew up in West Covina, California, when the place still crawled with farmers who paid his father to haul their hay to market. He was the middle child of three. (Both his siblings are gone now, as are his parents.) In the early days, his mother called their house “the chicken coop” because they lived next to the real clucking thing. “I’m not complaining about my childhood,” Ellis says. “I had food and a roof over my head. We were a close-knit family.”
Yet there were hard times. One year, unable to afford a Christmas tree, his mother came home with a tumbleweed that she spray-painted silver and adorned with strings of popcorn. Ellis had to reuse his older brother’s high-school yearbook for keepsake signatures; there wasn’t money for a new one. When farmers began hauling hay by rail, Ellis’s father, Belvin, quit the trucking business and moved to Henderson, where he bought a wrecking yard. For his graduation from Rancho High School in 1960, Ellis’ parents bought him the left front-fender and half a grille for a wrecked 1957 Buick two-door he’d bought for $500. “I was happy,” he says.
He was working in his father’s wrecking yard when he met Sandy. It was at a bar where Sandy’s mom, Nita, worked as a cocktail waitress. Bobby was ordering drinks with a fake ID when Sandy came in to deliver something.
“Who is that?” Ellis asked.
“That’s my daughter,” Nita said.
The couple married a year later. Struggling, they borrowed the $100 down payment for their first house in Henderson, which cost $14,955. They’ve been together for 53 years.
Years down the road, Ellis bought out the auto auction company his father had co-founded, along with another business called Snap Towing. He also bought land around the old wrecking yard. But real success didn’t come until Ellis quit drinking in 1987, at age 44.
“I found out that I wasn’t an alcoholic; I was a drunk. You know what the difference is? Drunks don’t go to AA meetings.” He was buying Black Velvet whisky a case at a time, and that didn’t include the Bud Light chasers. But he and Sandy somehow managed: He never got mean, he says now, and always came home in time for dinner.
Nonetheless, on a fishing trip, his partners intervened. You need to take a look at yourself, Ellis, they told him. You’re drinking way too much.
So he quit, just like that. “Alcohol was interfering with a lot of things I didn’t realize,” he says now.
By 2005, Ellis was beginning to wind down from his exhausting business treadmill, slowly giving up the reins to his son, Don. (He completed the handoff in 2015.) Meanwhile, he was organizing “Deli Days,” regular get-togethers at Jason’s Deli in Henderson, attended by political movers-and-shakers from across Clark County.
He was primed to take the next step in his life, to make good on the pledge he and Sandy made years earlier.
One day, he got a call from a friend about a woman who wanted a donation for Whitney Elementary School. Ellis recalls the conversation: “You’ve got to help me here, Ellis,” the friend said. “I can’t get rid of this lady. But you better let me handle her — she’ll tear you up. She doesn’t take no for an answer.”
Intrigued, Ellis invited Ileana Drobkin to his office, where she asked him to underwrite the purchase of sweatshirts for the school’s 800 students, some of whose drug-addled parents would sell their clothing, leaving the kids to show up on winter days in shirtsleeves. Ellis liked her spunk. She left with a check for $5,000.
The next year, he gave $10,000, then $25,000, then $50,000.
Eventually, the pair began to work together to identify other high-risk schools, developing a set of decision-making criteria to function in a philanthropic world where the need is limitless.
“When we interview principals, I want a match,” Ellis said, “I want the principal to be happy with us, and I want to be happy with the school. Then we both can smile.”
Ellis also began staging the December assemblies where chosen schools are given shoes, socks, and toys. Drobkin, whom Ellis calls “the den mother,” coordinates with a shoe retailer to visit the schools and measure the students’ feet. Then Drobkin and Sandy Ellis pick out age-appropriate gifts, which often include laptops, remote-controlled cars, even drones.
“I’d like to keep some of those toys,” says Ellis. “Man, they’re cool.”
The gift distribution is a mammoth undertaking. If you think buying for five kids each Christmas is hard, try 5,500. The team begins planning in March for the December onslaught. Within an age group, each gift must be exactly the same so no child feels slighted. Drobkin never buys dolls, because she wouldn’t dream of giving an ivory-faced figure to a black or Latino child. And if they come up short on numbers, even by a toy or two, they know some student is going to go without a gift, an outcome Drobkin and her teams find unthinkable.
At first, Ellis wanted his contributions to remain anonymous. He’d have Drobkin drop off the donation checks, and for the first few years rarely attended the assemblies at which students received gifts. He isn’t shy, it’s just that the funny man worried he might cry.
“At one school, the kids were so poor they were stealing ketchup from the cafeteria to take home to make soup,” he said. “Well, I cry over cartoons, and I knew that if I went to a lot of these schools, I’d see the heartache.”
Eventually, he began to attend the events, and even take the stage. “I saw kids receiving toys and saw the smiles on their faces,” he says. “And I said, ‘I’m going to go up there.” Now, Decembers are a madcap rush between assemblies, but Ellis loves the action.
At many of his chosen schools, 100 percent of students qualify for free school lunches. He gives to schools with autism classes, as well as a global community high school, where many students are new to the country; he sponsors soccer teams, as well as cross-country and weightlifting.
He provided for an underprivileged father and two sons in Las Vegas, helping them recover from a 2012 attack by a claw-hammer-wielding intruder who killed the mother and daughter. He gave money to an impoverished Native American high school near the Oregon border so its football coach could buy new equipment. He also donated shoes and socks for the entire student body. He and Drobkin teamed up to purchase a car, clothes, and a laptop for the three sons, aged 11, 19 and 21, of Ella Clyde, a single mother in Caliente who is suffering from cancer.
When her youngest son, Adam, received a new jacket Drobkin had bought, “he was overwhelmed; that jacket was the most wonderful thing he’d ever seen,” she recalled. “He kept saying, ‘Is it really mine? It’s all for me? It’s really brand new?’”
Clyde says she was overwhelmed by Ellis’ generosity. “What kind of person gives a family hundreds of dollars for groceries? Who buys my boy a new car so he can get places, or a Kindle, or bicycle, or pays for one of them to go to school,” she asks, her voice breaking. “And he’s not high-and-mighty about it. He doesn’t do it for the attention. We’re poor; that’s what we are. I could have never done this for my kids.”
A few years ago, Drobkin floated the idea of petitioning the Clark County School District to name a school after the couple. That effort failed, and Ellis didn’t think he wanted to try again. That’s when Richard Bryan stepped up. He appeared before the selection committee and explained that, sure, Ellis isn’t a political figure, you never see his name on the society page, he’s not a professor, and he’s never served on any school board.
“But I said there ought to be a category for a couple that has devoted millions of dollars to help disadvantaged students and supports the schools they attend,” he says.
The official name-dedication ceremony is scheduled for this month.
The benefactor wears cowboy boots and a starched western shirt as he walks the hallways at Robert and Sandy Ellis Elementary School. His access here is pretty much carte blanche. He even has his own parking spot. “Right this moment,” he deadpans, “they’re probably towing my car away.”
He often stops by to strategize, drop off a check, or just look around. It’s never planned. “I want to catch one of the teachers doing something wrong, so I can write them up,” he jokes.
Touring the grounds, Ellis says things like “Beautiful!” and “Amazing!” He passes a bulletin board bearing the 12-rule “Ellis Code of Excellence,” which includes “Use Manners at All Times” and “Say ‘Yes, Ma’am,’ ‘No, Sir’ or use proper name.”
“Oh, my gosh,” he says.
In the expansive computer room, he learns how students clamor for such modern after-school activities as the robotics club. He asks about technical training. For Ellis, it’s as much about developing a work ethic as getting a formal education. “We used to call it woodshop or home-ec,” he tells Principal Hall. “Did you know that the trucking industry is short 50,000 long-distance drivers? There’s no shame in that kind of work.”
In a first-grade class, where students are learning the fundamentals of soccer, Hall introduces the school’s namesake. “You all know Mr. Ellis!” she tells two dozen students.
“Nooooooo!” they say in unison.
Hall blushes but Ellis beams: It’s like one of his own comeback lines. “I love it,” he says.
Hall suspects that Ellis would have preferred that his name was bestowed on a more underprivileged school, so she coordinated an event to pay forward her school’s good fortune. And she did it Bobby Ellis-style.
School parents raised money to buy shoes and socks for 450 underprivileged students at Kit Carson Elementary School. When the drive came up short of its $4,200 goal, Hall paid the remaining $55 out of her own pocket. Now Carson has been added to the December assembly schedule.
“It came from their example,” she says of Bobby and Sandy. “We wanted to follow their lead.”