He Ignited a New Chewonki Era

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Join us in wishing Tim Ellis a Happy 86th Birthday! Tim made monumental contributions to Chewonki during his time as president from 1970 to 1991 and is still active in his role as honorary trustee (and friendly Chewonki neighbor). To celebrate, we’re looking back at his many contributions to Chewonki and invite you to send Tim a photo, memory, or happy birthday message as well.

This August, Acting President Nancy Kennedy visited Tim at his summer home on Montsweag Road (right across from the Chewonki waterfront!). She loved connecting with him, saying,  “I appreciated his time, probing questions, and the reflections and insights he generously shared.”  As the visit ended, Tim asked, “How can I help?” Nancy already has a few ideas. First, however, we felt it was high time to look back at Tim’s incredible impact on Chewonki and let him know how grateful we are for his continued presence in our community. 

Tim’s lifelong connection to Chewonki began in 1937. He arrived in a bassinet when his father, Harwood “Hardy” Ellis, Assistant Head at the Rivers School, was recruited by Chewonki founder Clarence Allen as head counselor. Tim spent every childhood summer at Chewonki, eventually becoming a counselor. After college, he ventured abroad and met his wife, Margaret Ellis, while teaching in Switzerland in the early 1960s.

Flashback! Tim Ellis as a young Chewonki camper (back row, fourth from left) in the 1940s.

In 1965, Tim received a compelling invitation from Board President George Wallace to return to Maine and take the helm at Camp Chewonki. Tim and Margaret embraced the opportunity, and the timing was fortuitous. Just four years earlier, Chewonki had transitioned to nonprofit status through alumni efforts; it was a new era ripe with possibility. Tim had long recognized the untapped potential of Chewonki’s breathtaking peninsula, idle for nine months each year. By 1970, he’d convinced Chewonki’s trustees to appoint him as the institution’s first year-round president, enabling him to expand programs throughout all seasons.

Tim Ellis leading Sunday Service in the late 1980s.

In his new role, Tim played a pivotal role in defining Chewonki’s nonprofit mission, expanding campus infrastructure, and advancing Clarence Allen’s vision for nature-based education. He introduced several innovative programs that continue to anchor our work today. 

His late wife, Margaret Ellis, also left a significant imprint on Chewonki, serving as the inaugural director of Health and Safety, spearheading the farm, and introducing many landscaping enhancements. To fully explore Margaret’s contributions, please refer to Remembering Margaret Ellis’ Legacy of Health and Safety.

Tim and Margaret Ellis with children Jenny and Ben.

Soon after becoming president, Tim expanded Chewonki’s backcountry leadership expeditions, which had already begun to grow with trips to Lake Umbagog in 1966 and 1967 and the Mahousuc Range in 1968. In 1970, Tim and staff launched the Thoreau Wilderness Trip (now the Thoreau Wabanaki Trip), paving the way for additional expeditions. By 1975, Chewonki offered extended summer trips to Umbagog, Nova Scotia, and Mistassini, Quebec. In 1976, co-ed backcountry expeditions began. These extended trips have become a hallmark of Chewonki programs – from camp to semester – cherished by generations of participants.

Tim Ellis, 3rd from right with campers (including Don Hudson) in the 1960s.

Another of Tim’s “experiments” was a multi-day Environmental Education (EE) program for eighth-grade Rivers School students in 1970, organized with the help of camp counselors Dave Barrington and Don Hudson, who stayed on to staff the program. Students stayed in tents for ten days with Chewonki leaders and their faculty while studying natural history, building outdoor skills, and learning about teamwork. The program was an immediate success, and Chewonki quickly identified interest from several other schools. EE eventually grew into the Outdoor Classroom, which still serves hundreds of students today, 50 years later. 

Tim Ellis, center, playing music with Scott Andrews, right, and Paul Arthur, left, in an undated photo.

In 1973, Tim hired former counselor Tom Bertocci to develop and launch Chewonki’s first year-long program, Maine Reach, for recent high school graduates. During Maine Reach’s eleven-year run, participants lived at Chewonki and studied ecology, natural history, Maine folklore and anthropology, public policy, and more. The curriculum included numerous field trips around Maine, and all students completed internships and a Group Action Project designed to catalyze a specific, positive change in Maine. Students also participated in farm work, chores, and wilderness trips in fall, winter, and spring, and helped build cabins and other facilities–including the Wallace dining hall in the program’s last year.

Tim Ellis and Roger Tory Peterson in an undated photo.

Tim’s tenure also saw the beginning of the Chewonki Traveling Natural History Program, developed in 1984 by Maine Reach alumna Rebecca May. Tim hired Bill Highsmith to create a Boatbuilders Program in 1977, and Lee Huston took the tiller in 1979. In 1987, he oversaw the creation of Maine Coast Semester, led by former Outdoor Classroom Director Scott Andrews (with the first semester arriving in 1988). Maine Coast Semester revitalized the most successful elements of Maine Reach in a new semester-long program for high school juniors. Chewonki also built the Allen Center and Wallace Dining Hall and refurbished the Farmhouse between 1983 and 1988.

Tim Ellis with son, Ben, and grandson, Flynn, at the Chewonki Centennial Celebration in 2015.

By the time Tim retired in 1991, Chewonki had successfully transformed into a year-round coed outdoor learning center with core programs firmly established.  

Tim played a pivotal role at Chewonki even after his retirement, serving as a trustee for twelve years from 1996 to 2008. His commitment to education went beyond Chewonki, with his founding of GlobalQuest (a semester program in Thailand) and his work with organizations like Trihos School Village, Morris Farm Trust, Merrymeeting Audubon Society, and more. In their retirement, Tim and Margaret also traveled extensively, bringing health services to rural areas in the U.S. and abroad. As Tim noted when he left Chewonki in 1991, it was never with the intention of slowing down!

As we celebrate Tim’s legacy, we honor a lifetime with an ongoing commitment to the transformative power of education and the profound impact one individual can have on generations of learners. We’re so grateful to have Tim as a partner and know he’s still just across the creek–willing to lend a hand or ear when needed.

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