Lena Elliott: Serving up aces
Portrait 2011 — Volume 1: Leaving a legacy
There is no such thing as halfway effort with Lena Elliott.
There isn’t a powerful ear she won’t bend, an event she won’t coordinate or a decision she won’t chime in on if she’s passionate about something. And two of the things she’s been most passionate about since moving to Grand Junction in 1957 have been tennis and education.
She learned to play tennis so she and her husband of 49 years, Carter, could play doubles as a team. Their 11 children — John, Kathy, Sharon, Ronald, David, Robert, Patricia, Sandra, Carol Ann, Steven and Julie — also fell in love with the sport, and the family played on a court in their backyard.
The Elliotts were named Family of the Month by the U.S. Tennis Association in 1986, Lena played with daughter Sandra at the U.S. Open’s Equitable Tennis Challenge in 1979 and again with daughter Julie in 1987, and she has directed the Grand Junction Tennis Club Board of Directors, the Boys and Girls State Tennis Meet, and the Western Colorado Junior Tennis Tournament, to name a few accomplishments.
One of Elliott’s first contributions in town came one year after she arrived, when she hosted the inaugural Western Slope Open. Taco Bell was later added to the front of the name.
Elliott, 77, uses proceeds from the tournament for local programs and scholarships as well as tennis supplies, and organizes 100 volunteers for the yearly event, which now attracts over 1,000 entrants of all ages and abilities.
“Sometimes I get so interested in growing things I get carried away,” Elliott said.
She’s also been involved in the construction of just about every local tennis court that has opened since she arrived in town, she says, including the one with her name on it at Mesa State College. And her love for development doesn’t stop there.
Her love for involvement at Mesa State, in particular, really expanded several years ago when President Tim Foster began what has become a series of campus construction projects. She serves on the college’s board of trustees and regularly volunteers to coordinate fundraisers, including those for scholarships and the $6 million campaign for the new Maverick Center.
She also co-chaired a $400,000 fundraising campaign for St. Mary’s in 1993 and chaired publicity for a $2 million drive for the hospital in 1978, raised $42,000 in 1979 for Grand Junction High School, raised $740,000 as co-chair of the United Way of Mesa County annual fund drive in 1990, and served on fundraising boards for Immaculate Heart of Mary Church and the Museum of the West.
“I love fundraising because you get to talk to and meet so many people. They can say no, but I keep coming back,” Elliott said.
She also talks regularly with Foster and has had input on everything from fundraising event themes to the furniture in the new College Center. Elliott said she’s known Foster “since before he was born,” and has been friends with his parents, Peggy and Bill, since they moved to town around the same time as the Elliotts.
Peggy Foster describes Elliott as an “enthusiastic” person who put local tennis on the map and loves arranging and organizing events. One of those events is an annual Christmas party Elliott hosts for female friends.
“She invites everyone she’s ever known and it’s just packed,” Foster said. “Anything she does is always a great success.”
Foster said Elliott has possessed her trademark work ethic as well as her honest attitude for as long as she’s known her.
“You know exactly what she thinks. There’s no dilly-dallying around and she’s always been that way,” Foster said.
Bill Foster, a former state legislator, convinced Elliott to serve on the Colorado Commission on Higher Education in the 1980s.
Elliott worried she wasn’t the right person for the job because she had “never spent a day in college,” but Bill Foster told her, “That’s what they need, someone with common sense.”
Elliott got her appointment to the commission and several other boards. Former Gov. Bill Ritter once told her she was the only person he’d heard of who was appointed to boards by five different governors.
She likes to be involved “any chance I get,” she said, and she’s never been shy to approach someone since childhood, when she grew up an only child who never liked to be alone.
She’s not alone much in Grand Junction, where Elliott seems to know everyone and has nine of her children living nearby (the other two are in Fort Collins and Huntington Beach, Calif.). Many of her children are educators and all graduated from college.
Elliott was born and raised in Trenton, N.J., moved to Glendale, Calif., her senior year of high school and fell in love with her future husband shortly after the move when the two were paired on a blind date. The couple married and lived in Dover, Del., for four years while Carter was in the military before relocating to Grand Junction.
“Wherever I am I get completely involved,” Elliott said.
Her involvement has earned her accolades. Chez Lena at Western Colorado Community College got its name after Elliott convinced a military compound leaving town to donate its kitchen equipment to the restaurant.
She has an open invitation to help any time she wants at the college, but Elliott said she has no desire to accept any job offers at the college. She prefers to stay involved as a volunteer.
And with “an idea a minute,” Elliott’s involvement shows no signs of stopping. While directing preparations for Feb. 12’s Renaissance Feast fundraiser, an idea for next year’s scholarship fundraiser popped into her head — a Western theme.
“We could put the hay bales over there,” she said.