Hundreds of well-wishers packed into First United Methodist Church last week to celebrate the 100th birthday of Jane Ellis, whose illustrious teaching career in Arlington spanned more than three decades. As the choir director for many years at Arlington High School, Ellis had a huge impact on countless students who grew up learning music under her leadership. Many of those students, along with other admirers, waited in a long line to chat with the lady who was icon even in her younger days.
Ellis was named choral music director at Arlington High in 1949 after teaching music for eight years at Southside Elementary, one of Arlington’s earliest schools. Her last assignment was serving as an assistant principal at Bowie High School.
“For 20 years, she was the music director at First Methodist Church as well as the pianist and sweetheart for Arlington Lions Club, Rotary Club and various other civic organizations in Arlington,” said Erin Chaney, friend and former student.
“She brought Colt spirit to the student body by instructing them in the proper way to sing the AHS alma mater and fight song,” said Chaney. “She taught her students the meaning of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and made memories with her interpretation of timeless choral pieces, which stir the hearts of her students even today.”
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Chaney was among those who organized the birthday party using social media and church bulletins to get the word out. She said news about her party sparked around 20,000 posts on various social media sites. “The theme of the party is ‘100 years of Something Wonderful’ after the song from “The King & I,” the first of several Broadway musicals that she brought to Arlington High.”
Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams read a proclamation declaring Jan. 21 as Jane Ellis Day following the reading of a similar proclamation from Hill County, where she was born.
Mac Martin, one of her former students and the son of one of Arlington’s longtime school superintendents, James W. Martin, made opening remarks at the event and introduced students from Ellis Elementary School named in honor of Ellis before they sang the school song for Ellis, who mouthed the words along with them.
“Miss Ellis was so proud of the beautiful school — so of course she wrote the school song,” quipped Martin. “That wasn’t enough, so she went out to the school and taught them to sing it.”
Among the guests was longtime Arlington resident Sheila Clawson, who sang in the Choraliers under Ellis and performed in “The King & I” in 1963 and has stayed connected to her ever since. “She’s an icon,” Clawson said. “Her faith and her love of music are what touched me most about her, and it still does. She’s an amazing, loving, godly woman.”
After retiring from teaching in 1982, she launched a second career as a tour guide for Dan Dipert Tours and was popular with travelers as she entertained them on the road by teaching them songs and playing fun games.
“Being a tour director was a perfect fit for her,” said Dan Dipert Sr. “She loved people, was energetic and had great enthusiasm.” Dipert described her at the time in 1964 when he came to town to serve as the youth pastor at First Baptist Church: “Jane Ellis was already bigger than life and totally entrenched with the youth of our community.”
Chaney said of Ms. Ellis: “If I have one inspiration in my life besides my daddy, it was Ms. Ellis. She’s inspired thousands of people to become teachers and musicians. Throughout her life, she’s touched the lives of adults and children alike in so many, many ways.”
As Ellis came to the podium, the raucous crowd hushed as she opened by saying, “The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be,” adding after the laughter subsided that “she had loved all her schools, but I loved the Colts.”
“It was a good time and I hope that you have lived your lives with faith — and growing faith — and that you have found that that song that you sang at the end of your senior year, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ — that you have embraced that and used God’s help as you have faced many problems.”
A large group of former Choraliers attended the festivities, and a highlight of the event came when Ellis conducted the group as they sang the school songs. Belying her advanced age, Ellis still has her conductor’s mojo as she engaged the singers with her trademark musical cues using the expressive sweeping body gestures and the lexicon of a director’s face.