Robert Harry Ellis, the first GM of KAET/Arizona PBS in Phoenix, died March 4 at the Friendship Village senior living community in Tempe due to health complications caused by kidney disease and bone cancer. He was 93.
Ellis, known to friends and colleagues as Bob, was GM of KAET from 1961–87. He began working at the station’s licensee, Arizona State University, in 1959 as director of radio operations.
KAET signed on Jan. 30, 1961, as the 56th public television station in the U.S., according to a timeline produced by the station. Like many public broadcasters, the station initially focused on airing televised college courses.
But in 1962, the nightly program Day in Review premiered, featuring Ellis covering news, PD Shel Siegel with sports, EP Charles Allen with weather and Al Michaels as understudy. Michaels later became one of the top sportscasters for the NFL.
Ellis led the station when it purchased color studio cameras in 1968, and he helped create Arizona Horizon, a daily newscast, in 1981. He was also an associate professor, teaching a broadcast management class for more than 25 years. He retired as associate VP for university relations, a role in which he coordinated ASU’s first trip to the Rose Bowl in 1987. Ellis later led the university’s retiree association.
He also served on several boards for PBS, the Phoenix Zoo and the Arizona Humanities Council and was elected to the ASU College of Public Programs Hall of Fame and the Arizona Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Ellis was born March 2, 1928, in Cleveland. In a 2002 interview for the retirees association, Ellis said he and his older sister were children of the Great Depression.
“My father worked for the Guardian Bank in Cleveland. FDR closed all the banks and my dad lost his job and was out of work six years,” he said. In the aftermath of the Depression, the Ellis family lost three homes, a Buick and a boat. Ellis’ father died in 1938 at 46, which prompted the family to move in with Ellis’ grandparents.
But Ellis said in the interview that he wouldn’t describe his childhood as difficult because his grandparents took care of the family. He said he never missed meals and always received gifts for his birthday and Christmas. The family also kept an archive of 16 mm home movies to document his early years.
After getting kicked out of five high schools for misbehaving, Ellis eventually graduated from Glenville High School in Cleveland. When he turned 18, Ellis was drafted into the Army in 1946 and was stationed at Fort Knox, Ky. He never went overseas during his year and a half of service but was able to use the G.I. Bill to attend Arizona State College, later renamed Arizona State University.
Ellis received a bachelor’s degree in education. While working for KAET in the 1960s, Ellis received a master’s degree in speech and communication from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
After receiving his undergraduate degree, Ellis worked as a news writer, announcer and continuity director for KOY, a commercial station in Phoenix. Ellis met his wife Frankie Jo at the station, where she was an advertising executive. She ended her career in media after getting married in 1955, though she worked as a substitute teacher as their children got older.
The couple enjoyed traveling, listing places like Australia and Ireland as their favorites. For their 50th wedding anniversary in 2005, they took the entire family on an Alaskan cruise, according to their daughter Shana.
They also enjoyed playing bridge and attending performing arts events and ASU football games. Ellis was fond of tennis and racquetball, singing show tunes, peanut butter sandwiches, Christmas lights and his 1965 Mustang.
“I really wanted to have the car once I could drive, but when my dad got a promotion at ASU in 1986 (the year I turned 16), he got a Camry and the car disappeared,” Shana said. “I supposed he had it traded in, but the car came back a couple months later, painted red, so I knew it was mine.” She added that the Mustang now has Arizona PBS–branded license plates that say “4BOBAND,” because her father’s nickname was Boband.
Frankie Jo suffered injuries from a car accident in 2017. Ellis sat at her bedside for more than two years before she died in May 2020, two days short of her 91st birthday. Ellis’ son, Robert H. Ellis Jr., died in 2018. Ellis is survived by daughters Kimberly Murphy (Mike) and Shana Ellis (Todd Pearson); five grandchildren, Ellis Murphy (Hannah), Wendy Griffith (Mike), Avery Murphy (Celine), Kade Stout and Amaya Antonio; and five great-grandchildren, Lennon Feezell, Ava Griffith, Henry Griffith, Evie Murphy and Zeke Murphy.