By Doug Curlee | Editor at Large
When local politician and Navy pilot Jim Ellis died on April 10 at the age of 88, his passing inspired tributes in various media because he was the kind of man you could respect.
In the course of my time as a television reporter in San Diego, I ran across a lot of politicians I could say that about. I also ran across a lot of politicians about whom that could never be said.
I like to think that Jim sort of respected me as well. We talked now and then about past experiences we’d had. Jim was a highly decorated Naval Aviator and what he learned becoming one seemed to bleed over into civilian life.
We were probably as good friends as a politician and a reporter covering him were likely to ever be.
Jim stayed behind the controls of a plane long after he took off the uniform, often flying his own plane back and forth between San Diego and Sacramento.
He actually gave me a ride once. I was heading up to Northern California to see my mother in Lodi and he was kind enough to drop me off in Stockton, not far from the family home.
He was a great pilot, quick and sure in his moves in the cockpit. He had a great airplane — a Beechcraft Bonanza. They fit well together.
En route, we talked some about politics. Jim was a Republican, and a conservative one in a time when that meant something.
“Are you one of those commie liberals we always see?” he asked me.
As I got to know him better, through covering him, I saw that Jim was a man who’d talk to you — would tell you what he was thinking on an issue and why he was thinking that.
He was a somewhat low-key guy who knew what he didn’t know, and who got things done without yelling and screaming.
When politics began to lose his interest — after serving District 7 in the City Council; after serving in both the State Assembly and State Senate — he quietly walked away from it, rather than try to stay in office doing something he no longer cared about. Some of his accomplishments during his time in office include helping establish the regional park that became Mission Trails and getting State Route 52 started.
He served one term on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian.
Some of the old instincts eventually tried to kick in and Jim ran for his old senate seat in 1992, but lost to the late Lucy Killea.
Then he came home for good.
He and Carol Bentley, who once ran his San Diego office and then became his wife, settled in Mission Beach after living in Allied Gardens for many years.
“We had 20 wonderful years married,” Carol told me. “He was the best.”
I’d have to agree.
—Doug Curlee is Editor at Large. Reach him at email@example.com.