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Family’s Belief in Education Inspires Lifetime of Giving
Charles Higginson

Opportunity — the word peppers any conversation with KU alumni Nolen and Carole Ellison. Opportunity received, opportunity given, opportunity acted on.

Nolen Ellison and Carole Arnold met in the early 1950s, when they were attending a segregated junior high school in Kansas City, Kan. Both were dedicated, exceptional students, and Nolen showed promise as an athlete. Still, they couldn’t assume college lay in the future. “While college maybe was not an immediate goal, we saw that with success in athletics and in the classroom, if we kept the door open, it could happen,” Nolen said.

Nolen was a three-sport athlete and was inducted into the National Honor Society at Wyandotte High School. Carole made Sumner High School’s Honor Society. Their efforts bore fruit. Opportunity found them.

In 1959, the University of Kansas offered Nolen a full basketball scholarship. His older brother, Butch, also earned a basketball scholarship. The two played side-by-side and roomed together in Joseph R. Pearson Hall. Nolen was an All-Big Eight Conference selection in 1961 and team captain in 1963. He was just the seventh Jayhawk to score 1,000 points, and he remains No. 53 among KU’s top scorers, with 1,045 points in only three years (freshmen couldn't play at the time).

Meanwhile, Carole combined family support with private scholarships to attend KU. Her sister attended at the same time. The presence of siblings eased the transition to the university environment for both Nolen and Carole. Carole worked as an assistant in the Dean of Women’s Office. “Working in that situation gave me a broader feeling about the university and the value of opportunities,” she said.

Carole and Nolen married in 1962, the day after a quadruple-overtime win over K-State. They graduated the next year and embarked on long, distinguished careers in education.

“We both decided to dedicate our lives to education and community service,” Nolen said. “Education has always been the key to progress on the part of individuals, communities, nations and cultures.”

Dedicate themselves they did: Both taught in public schools in the Kansas City area — Nolen in Kansas and Carole in Missouri, because school districts at the time wouldn’t hire married couples. Nolen was elected in 1967 to the first Board of Trustees at KCK Community College — the youngest person, and the first African American, to serve. He was elected to a second term in 2007 after retiring from teaching and was the first person to serve multiple terms.

Both pursued advanced degrees. Nolen earned a master’s and a doctorate from Michigan State University, where a Kellogg Program professor suggested he consider leadership in higher education. After Nolen’s career took off, Carole earned a master’s from the University of Washington and a doctorate from Kent State. When the couple resettled in Kansas City, she worked for many years developing leadership programs for early childhood educators, largely at Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City, Mo.

In 1972, Nolen became president of Seattle Community College in Washington. Just 31, he was one of the youngest CEOs of a higher education institution nationwide. In 1974, he began a 17-year stint as president of Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio. A few years ago, the school named its new advanced technology building after him. In 1992, he accepted an endowed professorship of urban leadership, management and economic community development at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He retired in 2001.

The Ellison family: Front row (L to R) Kristen, Carole, Nolen and Kathryn. Back row (L to R) Matthew, Trisha, Zoey, Lauren, Ann, Marc, Diane and Steven.
Photo Contributed

CONNECTING GENERATIONS: “The Celebration of KU’s 150th anniversary in 2016-2017 reminded the Ellison family of the greatness of the University of Kansas to our family, state, nation and world,” Nolen Ellison said. “We agreed to give back and pay it forward through KU Endowment to ensure future generations have the same opportunity to benefit from our university.”

Sons Marc and Steven both attended KU, graduating from the School of Business in 1985 and 1989 respectively. At the time, their parents lived in Ohio, and Marc said it wasn’t assumed they would come to KU — but one thing was clearly established. “Not going to college was not an option,” he said. “We were going to go to college. My parents valued education very, very much.”

After 17 years with Ford Motor Company, Marc is now vice president of sales and marketing at InterMotive Vehicle Controls. Steven has now been with Ford for 27 years.

Inspired by KU’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2016, the Ellisons formed the Ellison Family Foundation to extend their support for education and community. Lessons learned have not been lost on Marc and Steven.

“My parents truly feel they have gotten to where they are in life because of the opportunities they had at KU,” Marc said. “They got the breaks they needed to be able to afford school, so this is a way to pay it forward.” Steven added, “They have always wanted to be in a position to give back to the university, and certainly give back to kids of color who may not have had the opportunities we have had.”

The foundation has made commitments to Seattle Community College, Cuyahoga Community College and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But through the years, Kansas City remained home, and KU remained the springboard. “We may have left and now live in California, but we never forgot those wonderful four years of coming to maturity at the University of Kansas,” Nolen said.

KU will be the foundation’s major beneficiary. Among other gifts, the Ellisons already have endowed a scholarship in the School of Education and Human Sciences in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., and made the first endowed gift to the Department of African and African American Studies to create the Ellison Family Research Fund.

They’re not finished yet. “I'm hoping, with my family, to support enlightened activities that center on questions of leadership and achievement,” Nolen said. “We’ll talk it through with KU Endowment, the Alumni Association and the Black Alumni Network Committee, to make sure what we do adds to the university’s bright future.”

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