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Tigers: Tracking a Legend
Robert E. EllisRobert E. Ellis was born on January 15, 1944 in Cabool, Missouri. After graduating from high school in Mountain Grove in 1962, he attended Missouri University and left to pursue a career in the automobile industry. Upon graduating from Bailey Technical Institute in St. Louis, he purchased a Phillips 66 service station that he ran until he made a bid to purchase a Ford Motor Co. dealership in 1967. The dealership bid was rejected and Ellis moved his family to Kalamazoo where he worked for his brother as an apprentice aviation mechanic at Kal-Aero Inc., a fixed-base aircraft maintenance facility at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport. In 1976, Ellis attended Kings Aviation Technology School in Knoxville, Tennessee where he successfully fulfilled the requirements to receive an FAA Airframe and Powerplant License.
After eight years of working at Kal-Aero Inc., the last five of which he managed the aircraft engine overhaul division, he moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee where he served as the chief of corporate aircraft maintenance for Brock & Blevins Inc., a corporation engaged in building atomic power plants.
In 1977, Ellis accepted the first employee position of general manager for the newly established Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum, now known as the Air Zoo. His title was later changed to executive director until 2010, when he was named president and CEO.
Ellis' early responsibilities included the development and running of the newly established aviation museum, as well as the maintenance and restoration of World War II aircraft, which participated in air shows across the country. Six of these aircraft received Grand Champion Awards at the EAA's annual air shows in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Ellis was also responsible for the development of staff to introduce educational and Scout programs for children of all ages.
In 1985, Ellis championed the first expansion of the museum as newly-acquired aircraft could no longer be exhibited indoors. The expansion tripled its size of the museum to 45,000 square feet and included a larger exhibit hall, a video theater, a new museum store, and a larger library. In 1992, at Ellis' request, the board approved the introduction of a simulator where guest could experience flights in a Corsair. As a result, attendance doubled.
In 2000, he came up with an innovative and engaging concept for the Air Zoo to reach a broader audience by designing a new 120,000-square-foot aviation attraction. The new attraction featured a more interactive and entertaining approach to paying tribute to America's aviation pioneers. It featured the Midwest's first 4-D theater, the Montgolfier Balloon Race, amusement park-style rides and even more aircraft for guests of all ages to enjoy.
In 2011, the Air Zoo expanded yet again, thanks to Ellis' continued quest to provide the best possible experience possible to every guest. A 50,000-square-foot exhibit hall was added to the main building to make room for new and current exhibits, aircraft, and space artifacts. This new East Wing gallery houses the Space: Dare to Dream exhibit, along with an exhibit about women in aviation and space. It also features a gallery for WWII aircraft, a climate-controlled archive and a library.
Under Ellis' vision and leadership, the museum's creative presentation of the history of flight, its educational programs and its unique interactive attractions for families distinguish the Air Zoo from all other aviation museums. The Air Zoo is the first and only aviation museum of its kind.
Ellis has served as a board member for the Michigan State Bureau of Aeronautics Education Coalition, the Kalamazoo County Chamber of Commerce, and the board chair for the Kalamazoo County Convention and Visitors Bureau. He has also served as an advisory board member for the Virginia Aviation Museum and a master of ceremonies for the Kalamazoo County Chamber of Commerce. Ellis has been featured as a speaker at numerous conferences, including the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Mutual Concerns Seminar.