Tom Ellis did not come in to work, he bounded into work.
Dressed in a three-piece suit, his curly chocolate hair perfectly coiffed, he bounced in one day, took off his jacket, rolled up his shirt sleeves and grabbed one of four concrete poles in our old newsroom at WCVB Channel 5 in Needham. He crossed his arms and slowly brought his body to a right angle of the pole, hanging sideways like a human flag. That was Tom. He was handsomely chiseled with the perfect cleft chin, had a deep and commanding voice, was kind and generous, and had an impish sense of humor.
Tom started his Boston career in 1968 at WBZ, where he and fellow anchor Tony Pepper were killing the ratings. He blasted off to New York for a few years, anchoring at WNBC and WABC before returning to Boston in 1978 to work his magic at Channel 5. He was eventually paired with married couple Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson to anchor the hour-long 6pm newscast. Like most threesomes, it was not a marriage made in heaven. We could anticipate a nightly call from Tom's wife, Arlene, who used a stop watch to measure the time he got to speak. If Tom was on the low end, we heard about it.
Tom never complained about assignments, though, and was eager to go out in the field in between anchoring broadcasts. One night he was sent out to interview an elderly woman who had been robbed. She offered him a cup of coffee and he took a big swig.
As he told me in an interview in 2010, he “felt a big lump in his mouth” and was “pretty sure it wasn’t sugar.” When the woman wasn’t looking, he snatched a napkin and spit something out. “It was a giant cockroach,” said Tom.
So, what did he do? Rather than embarrass the woman, he popped it back it his mouth and swallowed it.
In 1982, on a rare day off for Channel 5 News Director Jim Thistle, Tom was looking for someone to tell something very important. He looked around and then left a note on my desk that said, “Today is my last day.”
Off he went to the third-place competition, Channel 7. Under the ownership of Bob Kraft and David Mugar, the station had schemed to lure Tom away through an option in his contract. They launched an inspiring promotional campaign called “A New Day Dawning,” in which Tom would be paired with Robin Young from Evening Magazine fame. They were dubbed “The Dream Team,” but the campaign fizzled within 18 months. Young moved on; Tom remained to co-anchor with Diane Willis.
Tom finished his anchoring career at NECN, where he anchored the weekend news for many years. He was crushed when that came to an end in 2009, telling me at the time, “I’ve never not worked, so I’ll be doing something.”
Tom died Monday at his home in Sandwich. He will forever be remembered as the man who climbed the golden age of local TV to its pinnacle. As onetime Channel 5 General Manager Jim Coppersmith said of Tom and his era, “Hollywood has the movies. New York has Broadway shows. Boston has local television.” Tom was 86.