Old Ned

Arizona Historymakers™

Arizona Historical Society

Stevie Eller

1930 -

Honored as Historymaker 2001

Partners in Business and Philanthropy

Oral History Transcript:

Video directed and written by Chris Wooley. Director of photography: Wayne Dickmann. Produced by the Historical League. Narrated by Pat McMahon. Made possible by a financial grant from Dr. Edward B. Diethrich.

Stevie and Karl Eller are unbeatable - excelling as a team in business, rearing a family, and in their dedicated philanthropy to benefit the Phoenix community and the University of Arizona. Both were born in Illinois, he in Chicago and she in Paxton. Their partnership began as college sweethearts at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Today, after forty-eight years of marriage, their commitment to each other and their university never wavers.

Karl’s love affair with the University of Arizona began when he was a boy living in Tucson with his mother, who rented rooms to college students during the Great Depression. When Karl was eight, he was the official water boy for the UA football team.

As a student at Tucson High, Karl played basketball, football, and participated in student affairs. His football coach and mentor was Rollin “R.T.” Gridley. “Coach Gridley instilled in me the values of integrity, discipline, and hard work,” Karl says. It was his dream to play Wildcat football.

Following high school graduation in 1946, Karl enlisted in the Army. After his discharge from the service in 1949, Karl registered at the University of Arizona. His freshman year he lettered in football, then played four years as a defensive and offensive back. As proficient in basketball as he was in football, and popular with fellow athletes, he was elected president of the “A” Club. His fraternity was Phi Gamma Delta.

Recalling their student days, Stevie says of her husband’s early entrepreneurial effort, “I can see him pulling that little red wagon full of Coca-Cola across campus in August, selling ice-cold drinks to hot students standing in long registration lines.” Karl, along with another student, Mary Fennemore, started the study notes series they sold to thousands of UA students as the Phi Gam Humanities Notes. This enterprise enabled Karl to buy Stevie’s engagement ring.

Joan Stevens “Stevie” Eller was born and reared in a solid Midwestern environment. In 1865, her great-great-grandfather founded the local newspaper, the Paxton Daily Record. The Stevens family leadership traits appeared early in the vivacious young woman. While a student at the UA and a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, Stevie was sorority president during her senior year. She later served as alumnae president, state district chairperson, and was the Hall of Fame recipient of Theta’s Mary Coldwell Award.

Karl and Stevie married two days after their university graduation in 1952, he with a BA in business administration and she with a BS in education. Karl Eller’s first employment was with the billboard company, Foster and Kleiser, for whom he worked in Arizona, San Francisco, and Chicago. In 1959, he gained advertising experience while working for Needham, Louis and Brody in Chicago. He returned to Arizona in 1962 after purchasing the Arizona operation of Foster and Kleiser, and Eller Outdoor Advertising Company was born.

Stevie Eller taught English for three years in Phoenix, and she taught art and history for one year in Tucson. She then left teaching and began her many years as a community activist, first hosting a television program on KAET that listed volunteer needs. As a professional volunteer, Stevie was a member of the Women’s Auxiliary of Gompers Rehabilitation Center, the Herberger Theater, the Children’s Science Museum, Harrington Arthritis Research Center, and St. Mary’s Food Bank. She also served five years on the Phoenix Human Relations Commission.

Stevie enjoys board service and currently gives her time to Barrow Neurological Institute, Achievement Rewards for College Scientists, the Arizona Cancer Society, the Multiple Sclerosis Association, Phoenix Junior League, Hon Kachina Awards, KAET-TV, Phoenix Art Museum, COMPAS, the Salvation Army, and the Arizona Museum of Science and Technology.

Nationally, U.S. presidents have recruited her. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan appointed Stevie Eller as the U.S. representative for the bicentennial in Australia where she met HRH Prince Charles and Princess Diana of Great Britain. President George H. W. Bush named her to the Presidential Commission for the quincentennial celebration of Columbus’ arrival in North America. Stevie represented the United States in the Dominican Republic. Today, she serves on the national board of the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C.

Karl’s phenomenal business career encompasses his merger of Eller Outdoor Advertising with KTAR-TV, creating Combined Communication Corporation. Over the next twenty years, he led the Gannett Company and Columbia Pictures, serving as board chairman and CEO. In the early 1980s, as chairman and CEO of the Circle K Corporation, he built the company into the second largest convenience store operation in the country. One of the darker times of his life, however, was when he resigned from Circle K because of falling profits and soaring debts. Crediting support from his family for seeing him through the tough time, Mr. Eller reflects, “The biggest mistake I ever made was when I leveraged Circle K and it grew too fast. The market changed, and it tumbled.” Today, Karl is chairman/CEO of Eller Media Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications. He serves on numerous other boards.

Over the next twenty-five years, both Karl and Stevie predict a positive and continuing development of the hi-tech and commerce industry for Arizona. When asked who he would like to see play him in a movie, he replied, “How about Charlton Heston?” And Stevie’s fun-loving answer, “I think that sex symbol, Julia Roberts.”

Sports continue to play a major role in Karl’s life. He was one of the Fiesta Bowl founders, and later helped to move the UA and ASU into the PAC-10 conference.

Stevie was president of Circle K Travel for ten years and a working co-owner with Karl in Red River Resources, Inc. and Eller Media Company. Her mentors, however, were found in community service. She credits her inspiration to the motivating leadership of Peggy Hurley and Benita Fennemore, volunteer legends in the Phoenix community. It is difficult to find an organization in the Valley that Stevie has not given dedicated effort.

The Ellers’ generosity toward their alma mater is enormous. They have contributed more than $23 million to the University of Arizona. In 1999, the Arizona Board of Regents renamed the UA college of Business, the Eller College of Business and Public Administration. Earlier, the Ellers endowed the Karl Eller Center for the Study of Private Market Economy. Stevie has served on the University’s foundation board and is past chairperson of the Phoenix Presidents Club.

It’s not just a matter of writing checks – Karl personally recruits top executives to address BPA students and the Tucson business community. He also mentors students, hires graduates, and on an annual basis, speaks to students.

The Eller family clan includes son Scott, daughter Elissa, and six grandchildren. Since their halcyon days as students and Wildcats, Karl and Stevie Eller have been unequaled in their combined multi-business successes - and in their generosity to the University of Arizona and to charitable, humanitarian, and community causes in our state.