Stonington - The late Thomas J. Ellis, a Groton resident who graduated from Stonington High School 80 years ago, left a gift in his will last year that no one expected, establishing an $863,000 scholarship fund for students at his alma mater.
The fund, to be administered by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, is expected to generate about $38,000 a year in scholarships for Stonington High students who need help to pay for college. That's about four times the amount of money available through any other single scholarship fund at the high school, according to Rick Schwartz, a Boston-area consultant for the community foundation.
"The high school did not know (Ellis) existed," Schwartz said in a phone interview Monday. "He didn't go to reunions. They didn't know this was coming."
Ellis, a 1933 graduate who grew up as an only child in Mystic, participated in five sports during his Stonington High years while also acting in school plays and performing with the orchestra.
Alternatively known as "Hoot" and "T.J.," Ellis was quiet but popular, according to Schwartz, who researched the scholarship donor's life by interviewing family members and checking records.
In a yearbook entry found by Schwartz, Ellis was said to argue with teachers, "but in turn he gives a cheery aspect to the room."
Ellis, who never attended college, went on to work at the former Sonoco Products Co. in Mystic before establishing a 30-year career at the Naval Submarine Base, where he held several supervisory positions until retiring in 1971. Ellis then started a second career at the former Community Service Credit Union while also directing, until age 90, the regular bridge games at Groton Senior Center.
Along the way, he married Barbara Dupuis, a 1935 graduate of Robert E. Fitch Senior High School who captained the girls basketball team as well as the cheerleading squad. Barbara Ellis, who died in 2007 and whose estate was included in the scholarship donation, went on to have her own career at Electric Boat, where she served as executive secretary to three general managers and developed a rapport with Hyman Rickover, who went on to become an admiral and the father of the nuclear Navy.
"They didn't have kids; they both had good jobs," Schwartz said. "He watched every penny until the day he died."
That's not to say the Ellises never ventured out of their home. The couple, who were like second parents to their six nieces and nephews, enjoyed dancing, golf and bridge, Schwartz said, and visited some exotic locales such as Jerusalem and Alaska.
"She was very elegant," he said. "She drove a red sports car and loved to dress up."
Though neither Ellis took their education beyond high school, they once drove their eldest niece on a tour of East Coast colleges - a trip that was an inspiration the rest of their lives, according to family members.
A nephew, Brad Cook, recalled the Ellis' marriage as a close one during their 62 years together.
"If they ever did have a disagreement, it was when one of them screwed up a bridge game," he said in a recollection supplied by Schwartz. "And that wasn't often."
The Thomas J. Ellis Jr. Scholarship Award, established after Ellis' death last November at age 97, is a gift in perpetuity and is one of the largest of the nearly 100 scholarship funds administered by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut.
"Scholarships represent a deep commitment to give the next generation a helping hand," said Maryam Elahi, president and chief executive of the foundation, said in a statement released Monday.
The first Ellis scholarships, to be announced in June, will likely total half as much as those that will come in subsequent years because the community foundation did not receive the money until last summer, said Alison Woods, director of gift planning.
Students in need of funding will receive special consideration, Woods said, and scholarships are intended to be spread out over a four-year period so that an $8,000 recipient, for instance, might receive $2,000 annually. Woods said the foundation looks at all aspects of a student's high school years, including extracurricular activities, community service and hardships overcome.
"We give money to the institution, not to the student," Woods said.
At Stonington High, the scholarship is one of more than 40 that go exclusively to graduates living in town. But this one eclipses all others.
"It will certainly help our students for their future," Superintendent of Schools Van Riley said Monday. "It will be very much appreciated."