PALMETTO -- Heads were bowed. The American flag flew at half-staff. And tears were shed among the teachers, students and administrators gathered Wednesday at Manatee School of the Arts after they learned that one of the school’s original teachers, William Kenneth Ellis, had been shot to death.
Ellis, 61, was slain late Tuesday in the doorway of his North Port home. He had answered the doorbell at about 10 p.m., North Port police said after interviewing Ellis’ wife, Elizabeth, who was also at home. She told investigators she didn’t hear Kenneth say anything to anyone outside the front door.
When police arrived at the Albren Street house at about 10:15 p.m., they found Ellis on the ground with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to his upper torso. Two people wearing dark clothes and masks ran from the area, witnesses said. Neighbors told police they saw a dark-colored four-door sedan leaving the area.
Ellis was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital in North Port where he was pronounced dead.
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At Manatee School for the Arts, school administrators held a news conference in the aftermath of hearing about the killing of one of their own.
Ellis taught tae kwon do and world history since the school opened 13 years ago.
Principal Bill Jones spoke first, noting that Ellis was a stern disciplinarian who used a demerit system. But Ellis always stressed one thing more than discipline:
“He would tell you, ‘Students have to know that you love them.’ And he did,” Jones said.
Co-workers, students and administrators shared their memories of a man who fervently believed it was important to invest in children.
“He wasn’t just a teacher. He was family,” said 17-year-old Jason Tidd, one of Ellis’ tae kwon do students. “He didn’t do it for the money. He didn’t do it just because it was his job.
“He loved every single person. He would talk to us as we needed him. He would take time out of his class to talk with us about personal problems.”
Jason’s classmate Taylor Lesoine, a second-degree black belt, was Ellis’ student since the seventh grade.
“Being with a master, it changed me for the better,” the junior said. “I owe almost all I am today to Master Ellis.”
Ellis’ shooting came hours after the school, Manatee County’s largest charter school, held a ground-breaking ceremony for a planned expansion. School administrators held a barbecue to celebrate.
Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant, who worked with Ellis at Manatee School for the Arts, said she talked with him at the groundbreaking and he had been excited about the expansion.
She was shocked when she heard of his death.
“It’s just unfathomable. You can’t even comprehend something like this happening,” said Groover Bryant. “He’s just the nicest, most gentle person. He was so nice to work with and the kids just adored him. He had a gift for what he did.”
The first school representative to learn of Ellis’ death was assistant principal Terence Devine, who lives in Parrish. North Port police knocked on Devine’s door at 2:30 a.m. to inform him of the shooting.
“We have put grief counselors in place,” Devine said Wednesday afternoon. “That’s going as well as it can be expected to go.”
Devine is also advising students to take Ellis’ well-used words to heart: “Keep on keeping on -- keep plugging away.”
During the news conference, staffer Kelly Hillman stressed what the long-time educator stood for at the school.
“Every day when he walked down the hallway, you knew he was coming to work. He was in dress slacks and a tie, and he showed these kids what it is to be a respectable, smart individual,” Hillman said. “It’s just horrible that he’s not there.”
Dean of Students Linda Evans said more than 20 former students came by Wednesday morning after hearing the news. They just wanted to sit in the tae kwon do room.
“He would be able to tell you every student’s name and some personal information,” Evans said. ”That’s the kind of teacher he was. He expected excellence from his students, and he got it.”
Perhaps it was student Taylor Lesoine who best summarized the students’ pain.
“A lot of the kids in tae kwon do always joked around that ... you can’t beat Master Ellis ... nothing could get him. But we were proven wrong, I guess,” Taylor said with his head bowed.
In North Port, police said Elizabeth Ellis told them nothing was said between any suspects and her husband.
“I heard a pop,” said Hans Smelker, 35, who lives three doors down from Ellis’ home in North Port. “I thought something dropped in the kitchen. Then I went back to watching television. A few minutes later, there were police everywhere.
“I was a little freaked out. This is always a such a quiet neighborhood,” he said. “It caught us off guard.”
Smelker said Ellis’ home had been broken into in December.
Other neighbors said they heard a loud bang but didn’t think much of it until police came about three minutes later.
North Port Police Capt. Bob Estrada said investigators are working with authorities in Manatee County and Palmetto on the case.
Anyone with information about the shooting can call North Port police at (941) 429-7382 or (941) 429-7300.
-- Herald Staff writer Paradise Afshar and the North Port Sun contributed to this story.