The gathering on Sunday, Sept. 7 at IBT's to celebrate the 90th birthday of Observer Weekly founder and editor-in-chief Bob Ellis wasn't only an opportunity for the 38-year-old LGBT newspaper's staff to celebrate the life of its founder. It was also a moment to bring together members and leaders of Tucson's LGBT community, as well as a handful of elected and would-be elected officials.
Sitting with Bob under the LGBT bar's green awning in the back porch was his niece, who was in town from Texas, and members of the Observer staff. A stack of birthday cards and gifts slowly took over the center of the table. Between birthday kisses, handshakes and well wishes, Ellis said it felt good to realize the newspaper he started—first called the Tucson Gay Newsletter—remains relevant today.
And while LGBT political progress has been tremendous this past decade, Ellis did lament that it also made it challenging for the LGBT community to pull together as it did in the past, when towns like Tucson had more than just a few gay bars. Ellis has seen the community through the best and worst times while experiencing an unbelievably full life.
A Minneapolis native, Ellis loved books as a kid. He served in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War and left the military a decorated veteran with an amazing war record you can review at the Tucson Gay Museum website.
Besides his military service, he worked as an artist relations rep for King Records and eventually moved to Austin, Texas, where he owned the city's first gay bar, the Jesters Club, and helped form the first underground gay and lesbian rights group at University of Texas.
Ellis founded the Observer in the wake of a tragic incident that took place on Sunday, June 6, 1976. A vacationing Richard Heakin was murdered outside Tucson's Stonewall Tavern by high school students. This was a huge turning point for Tucson's LGBT community, which pressured the city to address the murder, hate crimes and equality. They also wanted better communication with the LGBT community, so Ellis launched the Tucson Gay Newletter.
The newsletter grew into a newspaper and has continued in different incarnations, with a brief break in 2011 after Ellis took a fall. Observer Senior Editor Greg Miller told me that while Ellis recovered from his fall, a group ensured the publication continued. Ellis returned as editor-in-chief, and while he may not participate on a day-to-day basis, he does give Miller feedback. Even the night of the party, Ellis gave Miller advices on headlines and white space.
"He is still very much involved in the paper," Miller said.
Past gatherings with Ellis have happened on St. Patrick's Day at IBT's and El Torero, that legendary South Tucson Mexican restaurant.
"Last year's birthday we took over the building," Miller said. "Even the old ladies there remembered him and people from the older crowd came out to join us."
Miller said the paper plays a vital role in Tucson.
"Every community need a voice and the voice doesn't necessarily have to agree with itself, but everyone needs to feel like they are being heard," Miller said. "It makes things so much easier to move forward and get things done."
As current elected officials, as well as former and would-be, filed into IBT's back porch—state Senator Olivia Cajero Bedford; Tucson Unified School District governing board member Adelita Grijalva; Legislative District 9 House candidate Randall Friese; former state Senate candidate and Friese campaign manager Cheryl Cage; former state Attorney General and current Secretary of State candidate Terry Goddard, state lawmaker Demion Clinco—the Observer staff scurried to take pictures of them with Ellis.
"I think the reason people come out to see Bob isn't just because they are proud of the Observer and that he dedicated his life to doing that, but that he made an impact on a generation," Miller said. "The first person in Austin to start a gay bar and this paper. Sure, now he's a but of a curmudgeon, but I think he's that person we think about when we are younger—that older gay person you would aspire to be."
Assistant Editor Christopher Pankratz said the Observer will look at Ellis as editor-in-chief until he no longer want to be. "His legacy is one of the reason we're all sort of involved in this newspaper," he said.
The Observer has been a way to unify the community when it has seemed impossible. Last year's controversy surrounding the annual Pride is a good example, Pankratz said.
"Someone will say, 'You have to run my point-of-view and no one else,' and we have to remind people the Observer belongs to everyone," Pankratz said.