He’s the son of a Marine and 1 of 5 children who grew up in a small Ocean View ranch in which the kids shared one bathroom. There was no air conditioning, so on hot summer nights the kids would overflow onto the porch.
If you wanted ice cream or to go to a movie, you were told to go out and earn the money, whether that meant shining shoes, delivering newspapers or selling Christmas Trees for the Ocean View Knights of Columbus.
Dennis Ellmer learned how to make a buck before he was a teenager, and did not allow his humble beginnings to dissuade him from dreaming big.
As a senior in Norview High School (class of 1971), he already was delivering both the morning and evening newspaper and selling auto parts at Norfolk’s Southern Shopping Center.
As an adult, he sold motorcycles, and then cars — and he was pretty good at convincing people that yes, they needed new wheels.
He got married, had three children and was selling cars in Northern Virginia in 1998 when he was offered the chance to buy a Chesapeake car dealership.
With the blessing of his wife, Jan, he mortgaged his house, borrowed every dime he could and purchased Jimmy Kline Chevrolet and Toyota. If the business failed, he would have had to start all over at age 45.
“I was done” if it failed, he said.
But it succeeded, and Ellmer has grown that one small lot into the Priority Automotive Group, which now has 20 car dealerships throughout Hampton Roads and across the state.
Priority is a $2 billion business that employs more than 2,500 people. Inside Business consistently ranked Ellmer among the top 20 most influential people in Hampton Roads.
Yet Ellmer never forgot his modest roots, and as his business prospered, he has shared his wealth with the community.
More than a decade ago he revived the Charity Bowl football game. The game and an accompanying golf tournament helped him raise $4 million for children’s charities in the last five years, including the Joy Fund, sponsored by The Virginian-Pilot and the Daily Press.
The 2022 Charity Bowl will add another $850,000 to that total. All of the money goes to aid 45 charitable groups that help children in need.
It is largely because of his charitable work that the Norfolk Cosmopolitan Club recently honored Ellmer as its First Citizen.
He was named First Citizen in 2019, but because of the pandemic, Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander was unable to put the First Citizen medal around his neck until April 23 at the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club.
“I’ve worked with Dennis on a number of initiatives, and he always asks what we need and says he and his team will figure out how to do it,” Alexander said.
The event drew several hundred people and some state and regional leaders, including former Gov. Bob McDonnell, Chesapeake Mayor Rick West, Norfolk Sheriff Joe Baron, Old Dominion President Brian O. Hemphill and Sheppard W. Miller III, Virginia’s secretary of transportation, who read a letter from Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
Miller recalled a phone conversation with Ellmer after a snowstorm this past winter.
“He was brooming snow off cars in one of his lots,” Miller said. “You don’t get where he is by not doing that kind of stuff. The governor often says there’s no quit in that guy.”
Ellmer made light of being born on the so-called wrong end of the tracks during his low-key and humble acceptance speech.
“I’m the first guy from Norview High, from Ocean View, to be First Citizen,” he said. “I didn’t want to mention that until the end of the evening because they might take it away.”
Several tables away, Judy Boone beamed. Boone founded and still heads Judy Boone Realty, the dominant player in Ocean View and one of the region’s largest real estate agencies.
She grew up two doors away from Ellmer and discovered the value of location, location, location when she set up a lemonade stand in front of her house. She didn’t sell much lemonade until moving over to Cape View Avenue, a thoroughfare.
“A few years ago, I asked Dennis, ‘can you believe what we accomplished?”’ she said. “He told me, ‘Judy, we didn’t have a lot, but it was fun making the money, and we were loved.’”
Ellmer spoke emotionally about his parents, Lewis and Georgianna. Lewis fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars and for a while, was declared missing in action and presumed dead in Korea. Shortly after the war ended, he arrived on his parents’ doorstep after being released.
“They thought he was dead,” Ellmer said.
Ellmer attended Holy Trinity Catholic School until enrolling at Norview and was a stellar athlete. Robert Roussos, a long-time Norfolk attorney and former Norview High classmate, played on many of those teams with him, including the Ocean View Aces football team.
Ellmer was, of course, captained the defense at linebacker.
“Dennis was the guy who got along with everyone, who cared about everyone,” Roussos said.
That care was exhibited when he began work on an idea several years ago to train non-violent felons to become automobile mechanics. He built a $2 million training center in Chesapeake, worked with Republicans and Democrats to get a state law changed so that non-violent felons can do state inspections and began partnerships with Tidewater Community College, Tidewater Tech and the Norfolk Sheriff’s Department.
Ellmer pays their tuition to go to school. Nearly 100 graduates of the program now work at Priority, with most making more than $50,000 a year, and one making more than $100,000, Ellmer said.
The idea hatched from a trip to Fiji, when he and his wife, Jan, had lunch with their tour guide and asked him how he’d learned so much about his country. He said he got out of jail by learning how to become a tour guide.
He met Jan nearly five decades ago after she picked his face out of a wedding album of a friend. Tony Cerza, another local car dealer, set them up on a blind date and they hit it off immediately. They’ve been married 44 years.
“She’s been the core of our family, the rock,” he said. “We moved nine times in our first 25 years and that was hard on her. I wouldn’t be standing here without her.”
The Ellmers have funded scholarships for ODU students and give generously to the March of Dimes. He had twin sisters who died shortly after birth and said with today’s technology, they would live.
“Dennis has done so many things like that to help people, most that no one really knows about, that it would take a scroll for you to name all of them,” said former Norfolk City Councilman W. Randy Wright, who was co-chair of the First Citizen committee that selected Ellmer.
Noting the long list of former First Citizens, including former Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, attorney Vincent J. Mastracco Jr., philanthropist Josh Darden and the late Peter G. Decker Jr., an attorney who was also a philanthropist, Ellmer said “tonight, we’re standing on their shoulders. They set the example and showed people like me how to do our share to make this a better place.
“An award like this is not a destination. It’s simply a milestone in a journey that continues,” he said. “I promise you I’m not done. I will wake up tomorrow looking for more ways to make Hampton Roads a better place.”
Minium is a former Virginian-Pilot and Daily-Press reporter.