By Helena Rodriguez: PNT staff writer
John and Betty Ellis ironically met in a marriage and family class at Eastern New Mexico University in 1986. They had differing views on marriage, yet they tied the knot and put their education on hold.
Twenty years later, following a 17-year hiatus from college, careers in restaurant management, and the birth of their two now teenage daughters, the husband and wife will finally do what they first set out to do before they met in that fateful class 20 years ago. They will both walk across the stage and receive their college diplomas.
The Ellises are among 248 students who will graduate from ENMU on Saturday. The fall commencement will be held at 10 a.m. at Greyhound Arena.
“We have been waiting 17 years to walk across that stage,” John said. “With that piece of paper, we can get in the door in places where we want to work instead of places where we have to work.”
A door has already opened for John. He did an internship this past summer with an accounting firm, Fleming, Widner & Jones of Clovis, and has been offered a full-time position there.
John will receive a bachelor’s degree with double majors in accounting and business administration. Betty will also receive a bachelor’s degree with double majors in criminal justice and sociology.
The couple both returned to Eastern in 2003 after losing their jobs when a restaurant that they co-managed in Colorado was closed. It has taken them three years — going to school fall, spring and summer, often while taking class overloads — to complete their degrees.
“God is so good and so are our families … we couldn’t have done it without them,” Betty said. “Our experience here has been rewarding and challenging. This has been one of the most exceptional things we’ve done, besides having our children.”
The Ellises’ daughters are Katanna, 17, and Shelby, 14. Katanna, a junior at Portales High School, has already received two scholarships to ENMU and will begin taking college classes at Eastern next August while still in high school. John’s mother, Sara Ellis, is also a graduate of Eastern as is Betty’s brother, John Mondragon.
Betty said that while their daughters supported she and her husband coming back to school, they didn’t realize the financial sacrifice they would all have to make.
John said, “We have to give the glory to God. Every time we were almost out of gas, almost out of money, it came from somewhere. A check or something we weren’t expecting would come in the mail at the right time.”
He said his mother helped them out while they were in school, as did Betty’s parents, Seprano and Josephine Mondragon. Also John’s uncle and aunt, Don and Phyllis Swigart, bought all of their books every semester.
“When I was working, we could buy a car or go on a trip whenever we wanted.
Coming to school took getting used to. We went from one extreme to another,” John said. “I felt really depressed when we first started back to school, but God has changed me. I used to focus completely on money and now I’ve gotten to where I’m not just focused on that. What is important is spending time with my kids while I have a chance.”
Betty said that she and John were not sure what to do when they lost their jobs. She suggested they go back to school but they weren’t exactly sure how they would make it work. But then Betty called her brother John, who lives in Portales, and he offered to let them live in his rent house for free until they finished school.
“I asked my brother, ‘How free is free?’ and he said “Until you get on your feet,’” Betty said.
In addition to their families, the Ellises also credit their church, Church of the Nazarene, and their favorite professors, for their support.
“The most influential instructor for me, when I came back, was Gillian Andersen,” Betty said. “I had never used a computer or Web CT (A Web site featuring online information and classes) and she would stay those extra 10 to 15 minutes with me.”
She also praised her boss, Vickie Linthicum of the Golden Library, who she said really worked with her during the two-and-a-half weeks she was out when her brother was killed in an accident.
As for John, he said, “Dr. Gene Smith in the business program was one of the best professors in college. He has been out in the real world and he teaches that way.”
The Ellises will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary on Jan. 31. Betty recalled how she first saw John in the old bowling alley at Eastern, where The Student Success Center is located now, and commented to a girlfriend, “I’m going to marry that man!”
Prior to graduation on Saturday, the Ellises will have a breakfast with their entire family which they estimate to be around 45 people. Following graduation, they will celebrate with a reception at the Holiday Inn Express, and then on Sunday morning, they will go to church together.
John, who is originally from Tucumcari, wants to eventually become a certified public accountant. As for Betty, a native of Raton, she has a dream of going to law school, perhaps after both of her daughters are in college. In the meantime, she is keeping her eyes open for jobs in the local area.