The Life of Larry
One of track and field’s good guys.
The Life of Larry
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 031, February 2021
by Liam Boylan-Pett
There are at least two outdoor track and field meets at Princeton University each year that nearly every east coast collegiate athlete has raced at or knows about. One is in early April. The other is two weeks later, when schools and track clubs from up and down the East Coast flock to the Friday night distance races and Saturday afternoon sprints and field events for the Larry Ellis Invitational.
I used to love the Larry Ellis Invitational. I ran there as a collegiate athlete and I ran there for the New Jersey-New York Track Club. I did not, however, know much about the meet’s namesake, and I suspect many competitors were in the same boat as me.
In 2018, however, when I was in the Las Vegas home of Bob Beamon for a story I was writing for ESPN’s The Undefeated, the 1968 Olympic Long Jump Gold medallist told me about how he wanted to be a basketball player before he wanted to be a track star, and he mentioned a name that sounded familiar. “Thank god for my track coach, Larry Ellis, who felt that—he felt that my abilities would be best used in prepping myself for the Olympics,” Beamon said.
I made a note to myself to eventually look more into this Larry Ellis guy, the man who had a track meet named after him and the man who made sure Bob Beamon stayed in track and field.
I’m glad I eventually did.
On a fall day in the 1960s, the Ellis children were at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Like many a fall day in the park, a cross-country meet was in full swing. Lesley, Robin, Joanne, and Lawrence, Jr., were there with their father, Larry Ellis, who was the coach at Jamaica High School in Queens and an assistant coach for the New York Pioneers, an A.A.U. club. It was one of the first times they had seen him coaching—and he was kind of different than he was at home.
He spoke to his athletes in groups and individually, prepping them and giving them high fives after their races. He talked to race officials with a serious face. He was authoritative and in charge. Robin felt like the president of the United States when her father let her hold the finishing tape for a race.
Ellis, however, might have been a little too focused on his job. Joanne had spent much of the afternoon rolling sideways down one of the hills. Her and her siblings ran off to the woods and played, not paying much attention to the races their father was there for. As the meet wound down and Ellis began to gather his athletes to take them home, he realized he was missing something: His own kin.
Once rounded up and gathered in the van with their father’s runners, the children wished they had been forgotten—the stench of the sweaty runners was unbearable.
Days like those were special for the Ellis children. Sure, they knew their father was important in the world of track and field, but they did not go to every meet, often staying home with their mother, Shirley. “A lot of children don’t get to see their parents in the workplace,” Lawrence told me, and he and his siblings enjoyed seeing their father in his element. Plus, Larry Ellis was successful in the workplace.
After 13 years coaching at Jamaica High School, he was hired to coach the Princeton University track and field and cross-country team in 1970, becoming the first Black coach of an Ivy League team in any sport. He was the coach of the 1984 Olympic Track and Field Team and other international teams, too, and served as the president of United States Track and Field in the 1990s.
For Lesley, Robin, Joanne, and Lawrence, that world was simply one of the many their father inhabited. As they shared with me when we spoke over Zoom this February, he lived a few different, siloed lives.
While many who live multiple lives seem like they might be hiding something, the more you peel back about Larry Ellis—whether looking into his life at home, Princeton, U.S. Track and Field, the Pioneers, or any other community he impacted—the grander he becomes.
As a teenager in the mid-1940s, Ellis spent many wee morning hours riding a horse and buggy—sometimes even on the horse—with his neighbor, delivering milk on a route through the Bronx. He liked his part time job and the peaceful sounds of the horse hooves clopping on the street. But he did not like waiting for the bus.
So, after his shift finished at 6:30 a.m. one morning, Ellis decided to race the bus home. He beat it in the 2.5-mile race, and soon, he was racing the bus almost daily. “The driver used to wave to me,” Ellis would later tell The New York Times. “I would beat the bus because it had to stop for lights and to pick up passengers. I also saved a nickel a day, 25 cents a week, and back then, it meant a lot.”
Born in Englewood, New Jersey, October 29, 1928, Lawrence Ellis was raised in the Bronx by his mother, Anna Wright-Ellis and his maternal grandmother, Theresa Hart. His father and mother were in an on-again-off-again relationship for a while until it was finally off.
At Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Ellis put his public transportation speed to good use, showing himself to be quite the middle-distance runner. After trying out for football, he ran a mile in 5 minutes, 15 seconds at cross-country tryouts, easily outrunning his classmates. He went on to win multiple city championships—including a mile in 4 minutes, 29 seconds—and was named the Clinton News Athlete-of-the-Year in 1946. When he graduated high school in 1947, he wrote in his yearbook that he hoped he might compete in the Olympics one day.
From Dewitt Clinton, he attended New York University, where he was a star on the Violet’s track team. He chipped away at his mile time, eventually running 4 minutes, 14 seconds to go along with a half-mile P.R. of 1 minute, 51.3 seconds. He was an I.C.A.A.A.A. cross-country champion and took third in the 800 meters at the N.C.A.A. meet his senior year.
His times were not Olympic level, but he set the stage for life after competition at N.Y.U., studying to become a teacher. First, however, he served in the army from 1951 to 1953. He was in Okinawa for seven months, was in Tokyo with the Far East Command Track Team for a brief moment, then spent the final seven months of his service with an artillery unit in the Korean combat zone.
He came home to a job at a junior high school in Manhattan and took classes at N.Y.U. to earn his master’s in education. He also wed Shirley Beard, who was a teacher in New York, too. By 1957, Lesley, their oldest, had joined the world and Ellis earned his master’s. The next year he took the job at Jamaica High School, and from there became a key player in track and field and cross-country in the city.
Over the next 12 years, Ellis added more and more onto his plate. In 1959, he began helping Joey Yancey, the head coach of the New York Pioneers, the famed A.A.U. club. His Jamaica team won Queens cross-country titles in 1965 and 1967, and the track and field team went undefeated from 1966 to ’69. In 1965, he became the Dean of Boys at Jamaica High to go along with his coaching job. That same year, he spent the summer in Nigeria with Operation Crossroads Africa, where he helped build a two-room elementary school for a small village.
Meanwhile, he and Shirley welcomed Robin, Joanne, and Lawrence, Jr., into the world.
The Ellis family was busy. Then, in 1970, the cross-country and track and field coaching position opened at Princeton University.
As reported by the Daily Princetonian, Princeton’s school paper, the process was rife with gaffes from the administration.
Ellis had sent a letter of inquiry in 1969 when he heard rumblings that the position may be open soon. Once the position had opened the following summer, the Princeton Athletic Department reached out. The department, according to reports, wanted to hire someone at a “reasonable salary” and someone who, if possible, was Black. Ellis fit one part of the bill, but according to reports, Princeton did not think they could afford him. So, athletic director R. Kenneth Fairman told University of Pennsylvania assistant coach Irving Mondschein that he wanted to give him the job. The Executive Committee of the Council on Athletics, however, told Fairman to make a greater effort to hire Ellis. They found a summer position in the Office of Educational Programs and Conference that would fill out Ellis’ salary and give him something to do in the summer.
Mondschein was furious with how it played out—he could not believe the university would make an unofficial job offer and then take it back. But, like most people who met him, he was friends with Ellis. The two would battle as coaches in the Ivy League over the next two decades as Mondschein stayed at Penn, eventually becoming the head coach.
Not everyone was as kind. Considering the reports that Mondschein was the first choice, some in the media and around the university claimed affirmative action was the only reason Ellis was hired. Lawrence, Jr., was only about 10 years old at the time, but he remembers stories in the paper and hearing his parents talk about it.
The Ellis children were thrilled and knew it was important that their dad was the first Black coach at an Ivy League School in any sport, but do not remember it being that big of a deal at home.
They do remember their dad wanting to prove anyone who thought affirmative action was the only reason he got a job wrong.
“I think it meant a lot to us as a family,” Robin said of Ellis being the first Black coach in the Ivies. “But I feel like when it actually happened, and we were in the real moment of him coaching and being there, it just totally evaporated. He was the coach for everybody.”
It could be any night, really, and the record needle would find the grooves to transmit crackling music through the speakers that filled the Ellis family living room with sound. There, Larry Ellis and his wife, Shirley, would dance. The children would laugh at their moves, their father leading the way, as they swayed to the sounds coming from whatever new album Ellis brought home that day. They ignored the laughter and kept dancing. As Lawrence puts it, they did not care, “They were having a good time and they loved each other.”
Love was a good word for the Ellis household, and it spread to more than the Ellis family.
Just a few miles away from campus, it was a revolving door for Princeton track and field athletes as soon as Ellis took the job in 1970. Most evenings, according to the Ellis children, someone would either be on the couch or at the dining room table studying or talking to Ellis. In fact, it did not even matter if they were on the track team or not. There was not a women’s team at Princeton until 1978, yet the stream of students going through the Ellis household included men and women and what seemed to the Ellis children like everyone on campus.
Ellis’ ability to connect with his athletes paid dividends. When he began coaching at Princeton in 1970, the team had not won a Heptagonal championship in cross-country or indoor track and field and had won its only outdoor Heps championship in 1938. In 1975, his runners, led by Craig Masback, won the 4 x 800-meters at the N.C.A.A. Indoor Championships, and that fall the team won its first Heps cross-country title.
Masback would go on to become one of Ellis’ best runners, running post-collegiately under Ellis, too, as he lowered his personal best to 3 minutes, 52.02 seconds in the mile. Masback was a soccer player in high school, and he chose Princeton because they were going to let him play soccer and run track—he went all-in on track early. Masback also knew of Ellis because he had run for the New York Pioneers while in high school in White Plains, New York.
For Masback, Ellis redefined what he thought it meant to be a leader.
On a team trip down to South Carolina in the spring of his freshman year, Masback sat in the seat next to Ellis on the bus. In his hands, he had typed up what he called a “list of grievances.” Over the first four or five hours of the drive, he talked Ellis’ ear off. From complaining about certain workouts to telling Ellis that the bus should leave the middle of campus when they left for meets so that everyone did not have to shuttle their bags all the way down to the gym, Masback let it all air out.
Ellis’ response was simple: “Sure. Why not?”
Masback couldn’t believe it. “A lot of people would pretend to be asleep on the bus,” Masback told me, “but Larry actually listened.” Ellis was not some leader who was going to make things his way or the highway. He was there to help his athletes, in any way he could. “He understood how to deal with very needy Ivy League athletes who wanted to be involved in all the decision making,” Masback said. “I give him credit for that—patience and a willingness to listen.”
Masback went on to become the C.E.O. of U.S.A.T.F. from 1997 to 2008 and has been a Sports Marketing Executive at Nike since 2008. He credits Ellis with teaching him how to engage with people around him and being willing to make a program better through ideas and reform.
Ellis’ impact on the Princeton community spread to coaches, too. In 1977, he hired Fred Samara as an assistant coach, and a year later Princeton hired Peter Farrell as the university’s first women’s track and field and cross-country coach.
Samara was a 1976 Olympian in decathlon. He had been coached by Irving Mondschein at Penn—the coach who was told he had the Princeton job before Ellis’ hiring, and Mondschein encouraged Samara to take the job. Like Masback, Samara loved that Ellis let him do his own thing. They were very good-cop-bad-cop: Ellis, the kind, even-keeled coach who checked in on how you were doing while Samara would get fired up with his athletes. Ellis also did not consider himself an expert in field events, so he let Samara run the ship. By 1979, he promoted Samara to head coach of track and field to keep Samara at Princeton instead of taking some other job, and the team won its first Heps indoor championship in 1980.
After a poor performance at a meet between Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in the 1980s, Ellis asked Samara to say a few words, like he always did. “Larry was always about inclusivity,” Samara told me. On this day, Samara lit into the guys on the team, telling them they weren’t into it, that they weren’t cheering on their teammates enough, and they needed to get it together. He thought he had gotten through to the team. On the bus, however, Ellis—who would have never yelled the way Samara did, according to Samara—told him that there was one thing he could have done differently. “Always end on a positive note,” Ellis said.
Samara is still coaching at Princeton. Once the Ivy League begins competing again, he’s going to have one of his best teams ever thanks in part to the extra eligibility granted because of missed opportunities for athletes. He told me he still tries to think of what Ellis would do when he coaches and talks to his team.
Farrell, who was the first and only person to hold the title of Head Coach, Women’s Track and Field and Cross-Country at Princeton from 1978 to 2016, told me he still thinks about Ellis, too, even though he is not coaching anymore.
“Larry took me in,” Farrell said, “and I’m not going to say it was exactly paternal but it was pretty damn close to that.” Farrell was 29 when he landed the job at Princeton, and, as he told me, it would have been easy for the coach of the men’s team to not worry about the women’s team, but Ellis made sure to keep Farrell in the loop. Any time there was a meeting with the Friends of Princeton—a behemoth of a fundraising arm—Ellis would make sure Farrell was involved. “Coaches can be very guarded with their resources,” Farrell said, noting other programs starting women’s sports did not have it as easy as him. “Larry was blind to it. He never, never, never was going to keep the women’s team from succeeding.”
It was more than athletes, for Ellis. According to his children, he was involved with initiatives on campus for Black students and other minorities—he was president of the Third World Center, a support center for students of color. Joanne told me she read Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, where the former first lady called the center “poorly named but well-intentioned.” While she does not give Princeton a glowing review when it comes to race relations, she did write about her experience as an assistant for the Third World Center, which has since been renamed the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding. Joanne and her siblings hope and believe their father must have connected with future FLOTUS at some point during her stint at the center—and it’s something they revel in.
For all his willingness to bring others up along with him, Ellis did stick to his laurels on a few things. Farrell remembered one indoor meet in Boston where Ellis decided everyone on the team was going to eat pancakes for breakfast—even the distance runners on the men’s and women’s teams that were Type-A and obsessive about eating exactly the right thing on race day. “Pancakes digest faster,” Ellis told Farrell, who did his best to get him to change his mind. Instead, everyone ate pancakes—or at least pretended to before going off and having their own breakfast somewhere else.
The pancakes worked. From 1970 to 1991, with Ellis at the helm, Princeton track and field and cross-country, which had won exactly one Heps championship before that period, won eight Heps championships in cross-country and 11 in indoor and outdoor track and field.
By that point, no one in the press was too worried about whether Ellis was hired because of affirmative action.
While he was turning Princeton track and field and cross-country into an Ivy League powerhouse, Ellis was making waves internationally, too. After coaching U.S. national teams at competitions like World Cups in 1973, ’78, and ’81, he was selected to coach the 1984 Olympic United States Track and Field Team. When selected as coach, he later said, “I didn’t jump up and down, but a little guy inside me jumped up and down.”
Ellis knew being coach of the Olympic team did not mean “coaching” as much as it meant facilitating and making life as easy as possible for the athletes on the team. For the 1984 team, with talents like Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, and Valerie Brisco-Hooks, who would become the first athlete to complete the 200-400 double that Michael Johnson made famous 12 years later, it was a tall task.
At that point, Lewis was one of the biggest sports stars in the world. He was gunning to win four gold medals at the Games, in the 100, 200, long jump, and 4 x 100-relay, to match Jesse Owens’ haul at the 1936 Olympics. The thing was, his coach allegedly did not want him to go to relay practice. Today, the U.S. track team is known for dropping the baton. Back in 1984, however, Coach Ellis was resourceful. He knew Lewis’ father. So, according to Farrell, he called him.
“Your son doesn’t want to come to practice,” Ellis told the soon-to-be four-time Olympic gold medalists’ dad. “He needs to be there.”
The next day, Lewis was there.
Ellis may not have been the rah-rah coach in the mold of Bob Knight. He knew how to connect with people.
The 4 x 100-meter relay team won gold and broke the world record. (Lewis was unable to be reached when I asked if the anecdote was true.)
Eventually, Ellis took his diplomatic approach to U.S.A.T.F., where he was the president from 1992 to 1996, just after he retired from his coaching position at Princeton. Once again, he was working to better things for athletes.
Near the end of that tenure, Ellis was the recipient of a heart transplant. According to his children, he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is a disease in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick. If untreated, the heart can no longer pump blood. The doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital felt that Ellis was a great candidate because of his great support system. And in 1995, one day before he was scheduled to be given a mechanical heart, a donor’s heart became available.
His recovery was unbelievable, almost. Fred Samara visited Ellis shortly after the surgery, and Ellis seemed fine. Shirley even brought out a plate of hot dogs—which was no surprise to Samara, who was always amazed by Ellis’ eating habits.
His running habits never went away, either. As Lesley, who lived near Ellis in New Jersey in the 1990s, told me, he kept running after the heart transplant, too. He would go to the track two hours at a time some days. To this day, that’s what stuck with Lesley: Even with a new heart, running and staying fit was important to Ellis.
So was sticking to his track and field roots. In September 1998, he was the coach of a U.S. track and field team at a World Cup event in Johannesburg. In late October, he walked around Van Cortlandt Park to watch the Heptagonal cross-country meet, where the Princeton men won. Fred Samara told Ellis he looked like he could go run the course.
He made a trip to Virginia with Shirley to speak at a friend’s funeral that weekend. He felt off once he returned, so he went to the hospital for a checkup. He was sent home, but continued to feel ill. On November 4, according to Lesley, Ellis put his head down on his kitchen table and died. He was 70.
Peter Farrell wanted to get to the funeral early, because he knew the crowd would be big, and he figured someone should be there to shake hands for those making the trip to celebrate Ellis’ life. The service was being held at the Princeton University Chapel.
So, Farrell and his wife arrived an hour early. It turned out he was late. Farrell opened the doors to the chapel, and it was packed. Like his children being surprised to see his father coaching, Farrell knew Ellis, the Princeton coach. “Princeton is a white world,” Farrell told me. “And this church was filled to the brim with African Americans.” Soon, the track and field world began showing up, too. It was standing room only.
Approximately 900 people were there that day. Lawrence said the family wanted the service to be a celebration of Ellis’ life, and even though the family was grieving, that’s what it felt like.
Many spoke, including Masback, who, Farrell remembers, jokingly apologized to Shirley for being the “difficult child.”
Looking back on it now, Lawrence marvels at how many people showed up. But it did not surprise him. He still makes connections with people who knew his father. He moved into a house in Oakland about 10 years ago, and a neighbor two or three houses down had a friend whose father was an Olympian—and they knew Larry Ellis.
“That happens to us all the time,” Lawrence said. The family searched for words as to why, and they came up with what some might view as cliche, but, honestly, seemed simple and perfect. “My father loved life,” Lawrence said. “He was,” Robin said, pausing and trying to think of the perfect word for her father, “a really nice guy.” She sighed. “He was a people person.”
In a 1984 article in The New York Times published shortly after he was chosen as the coach of the Olympic Team, Ellis told a reporter that he was proud of being the first Black coach at Princeton, but he did not wish to wear it as a label. “I think I have a reputation for being able to get along and work with athletes,” he said. “I can relate and I don’t think any of them notice color.”
In that same article, he noted how proud he was of John Carlos and Tommie Smith for their actions in Mexico City and how he thought that pushed the needle in the right direction.
After Ellis died in 1998, Princeton Track and Field named a meet in his honor. Every April since 1999, schools from up and down the East Coast come to Weaver Stadium in Princeton, New Jersey, for the Larry Ellis Invitational. At least one member from the Ellis family is there every year, too.
And every year on the Saturday of the meet, the public address announcer takes a moment to direct everyone in the stands to look at the scoreboard. There, a picture of Larry Ellis has replaced a spreadsheet of names and times. The announcer then reads a short biography of Ellis, explaining just a few of his many accomplishments.
Joanne said that they flash that photo and read the bio every year because of Shirley Ellis, the wife of Larry for 45 years, who was adamant that there was a photo so that people in the stands could see that he was a Black coach. “Role models work,” Joanne said. “They are critically important. And I would say, even more so in the Black community. That was from Shirley Ellis. That’s how she did it.”
So, even if in 1984, Ellis did not necessarily want to be labeled as a first, Shirley, who died in 2007, wanted him to be a source of inspiration.
To this day, the Larry Ellis Invitational remains. Robin remembers the Millrose Games being a part of growing up—like breathing, she said, a part of her vocabulary. Today, she can’t believe that the Larry Ellis Invite, while not quite as big as the Millrose Games, is a part of the East Coast track lexicon.
They do not all go every year, but the Ellis children do still like going to track meets, especially ones named after their father.
They do not run off to the woods anymore or hold the finish line tape. But they still remember their father in his element, one of the many he was at home in.
Whether he was at a track meet, in the living room dancing with Shirley, listening to a first-year student telling him all the things he was doing wrong, running around the track across the street with a new heart, or coaching an Olympic team, Larry Ellis cared.
For him and everyone he connected with, that was enough.