A Life: Robin Ellison, 1957-2014; ‘He Could Be There as Both a Mentor and a Friend’
Robin Ellison, center, playing the character Jacques DeBoys in the Parish Players production of Shakespeare's As You Like It in Nov. 2004. (Courtesy Philip Bowman)
Robin Ellison, right, and Dean Whitlock perform at the Open Fields Medieval Festival in May 2005. (Courtesy Dean Whitlock)
Thetford — Whether you crossed paths with Robin Ellison in his role as actor or coach or counselor or brother or neighbor during his 56 years, he rarely failed to create memories — or to simply remember.
Just ask Petey Becker of Fairlee.
“Years ago, ballooning first arrived in Post Mills and we were all intrigued by the colorful and almost magical balloons floating over our homes,” Becker recalled recently. “I mentioned to Robin that I would love to go up in a balloon, but as a freelance graphic designer, couldn’t afford the cost. Robin took my wish to heart, garnered support from a cadre of my friends and for my 40th birthday arranged a surprise balloon trip.
“True to form, Robin wove an even greater sense of play into the surprise: birthday singers at my house before dawn, bringing an early aviator’s leather helmet, ski goggles and gloves — it was mid-April and the upper atmosphere was cold — an Aussie coat and — oh, yes — a white silk scarf.”
Such memories flew around the Upper Valley, Vermont, and the country — by phone, social media and email — after Ellison died of heart failure on Jan. 16. Many of them centered around his two-plus decades of acting with troupes ranging from the Light Opera of Norwich and the Thetford-based Parish Players to Vermont Public Radio’s Panther Players and the trio of the clowns who entertained on behalf of Thetford’s Open Fields School on the Fourth of July.
For many, he made his first impression during the opera company’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in the early 1980s, not long after his graduation from Bates College in Maine.
“Robin was a pirate, but he was no ordinary pirate,” said Neal Meglathery of Thetford, where Ellison lived for many years after returning to the Upper Valley after college. “He was like Spider-Man. He was able to climb the proscenium at Tracy Hall, dagger in mouth, with no assistance. We had built a mast, but Robin didn’t need it.”
Nor, from childhood, growing up in White River Junction, did he need any prompting to push the envelope.
“He was always taking chances and climbing like a monkey,” said his younger sister, Gayle Ellison Davis. “I have one vivid memory of us resting on a rock-slide trail just before the summit of one of our mountain climbs, where Mom was holding him by his pants and back belt as he looked far out over a rock down the cliff.”
After taking what his elder brother Walter Ellison described as an “abortive stab” at football during his freshman year at Hartford High School, Robin threw his energies into cross-country running and — especially — cross-country skiing.
“Rob found one of the defining activities of his life when he met Kathy and Marty Hall and took up the complexities of step turns, diagonal stride and waxing,” Walter Ellison said.
After graduating from Hartford High in 1975 and skiing for Bates, and not long after returning to the Upper Valley, Robin started sharing the complexities and the simplicities of the sport with high school skiers — first at Hanover, later at Lebanon and finally at Woodstock.
“Even when we were coaching different teams, we were watching each other’s skiers for things,” said longtime Lebanon coach Les Lawrence, with whom Ellison co-coached in the 1990s. “He was always willing to share his visions, his insights about my kids. And when he started working with me, it was great to have two sets of eyes watching the same kid. A lot of the time, he’d see things, and using different words he could describe for that skier what I was trying to get across. Somebody finally said it in a way that connected for them.”
Ellison’s skiers reaped the rewards of those insights during and long after their run of state team championships under his tutelage, the last two with the Woodstock girls in 2006 and 2007.
“He wanted the best for everybody, whether you were one of the stronger skiers or not,” said Heidi Weider Nichols, whom Ellison coached at Hanover in the mid- to late 1980s. “He was always keeping things in practice fun, really trying to connect with each individual athlete — where they were physically, mentally, whatever. I would get very intense before and after races. He had a good way of saying, ‘OK: What did you do that you can improve on?’ Walking me through it and saying, ‘OK, it’s in the past. What are you going to do next race?’
“The time and effort he spent outside of practice … We’d come back the next day, and he’d have it all charted out: the snow conditions, the kind of wax we needed, who was sick. Back then I thought, ‘Man, did you do anything after you went home but think about what we needed?’
“You knew he cared.”
Ellison sharpened his gift for reaching teens and young adults into a career in counseling — first at Woodstock High School, then running a teen center in Middlebury, Vt., and, most recently, counseling in the Rutland, Vt., school district.
“He was somebody who would be watching for their triggers,” said Dean Whitlock, a Thetford-based freelance writer with whom Ellison acted and shared clowning gigs. “There were times where he might have to just hold onto somebody for 30, 45 minutes. It was emotional, demanding work. He could be there as both a mentor and a friend. It was a tough combination.”
His siblings couldn’t help noticing a more somber Robin Ellison in the years after he moved out of the Upper Valley, in part from the burdens of his work, in part from the death of their father in 2012.
“Yet, while I was going through his things, there were so many photos of him smiling and spending holidays with various friends,” Gayle Ellison Davis said. “It made me very happy to see that he still found joy.”
Those friends expect to focus on the joy during the memorial service and potluck supper that Ellison’s family will hold at Norwich Congregational Church on March 21, at 5 p.m. In the meantime, they’re sharing and re-viewing memories ranging from Columbus Day-weekend hikes in the White and Green Mountains to the pie fight he staged for his 30th birthday .
“A hundred pies disappeared in about a minute and a half,” Whitlock recalled . “He said, ‘If you’re going to turn 30, you’ve got to do it right.’ ”
In her tribute to Ellison at the end of a Parish Players notice to friends, supporters, and alumni of the troupe, former VPR Panther Player Robyn Noble wrote about learning of his death on Facebook and “crying into the phone” while talking with Dean Whitlock about their loss.
“I said, ‘I had a crush on Robin,’ ” Noble recalled. “(Husband) Richard (Noble) leaned into my shoulder and said, ‘Who didn’t?’ ”
David Corriveau can be reached at email@example.com or at 603-727-3304.