He is the son of a Marine and 1 of 5 children who grew up on a small ranch in Ocean View where the children shared a bathroom. There was no air conditioning so on hot summer nights the kids spilled out onto the porch.
If you wanted ice cream or go to the movies, you were told to go out and make some money, whether that was shining shoes, delivering newspapers or selling Christmas trees for the Knights of Columbus. from Ocean View.
Dennis Ellmer learned how to make money before he was a teenager and didn’t let his humble beginnings deter him from dreaming big.
As a senior at Norview High School (class of 1971), he was already delivering the morning and evening paper and selling auto parts at the Southern Mall in Norfolk.
As an adult, he sold motorcycles, then cars â and he was pretty good at convincing people that yes, they needed new wheels.
He got married, had three kids, and was selling cars in northern Virginia in 1998 when he was offered the opportunity to buy a car dealership in Chesapeake.
With the blessing of his wife, Jan, he mortgaged his house, borrowed every penny he could, and bought Jimmy Kline Chevrolet and Toyota. If the business failed, he would have had to start all over again at age 45.
“I was done” in case of failure, he said.
But it worked, and Ellmer grew that little batch into the Priority Automotive Group, which now has 20 car dealerships across Hampton Roads and across the state.
Priority is a $2 billion company that employs over 2,500 people. Inside Business has consistently ranked Ellmer among the 20 most influential people in Hampton Roads.
Yet Ellmer never forgot his humble roots, and as his business flourished, he shared his wealth with the community.
More than ten years ago, he revived the Charity Bowl football game. The game and a golf tournament have helped him raise $4 million for children’s charities over the past 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 money goes to help 45 charity groups that help children in need.
It was largely because of his charitable work that the Norfolk Cosmopolitan Club recently honored Ellmer as its first citizen.
He was made the First Citizen in 2019, but due to 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 Governor Bob McDonnell, Chesapeake Mayor Rick West, Norfolk Sheriff Joe Baron, former Dominion Chairman Brian O. Hemphill and Sheppard W. Miller III, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, who read a letter from Governor Glenn Youngkin.
Miller recalls a phone conversation with Ellmer after a snowstorm last winter.
“He was sweeping snow from cars in one of his lots,” Miller said. âYou don’t get where he is by not doing that stuff. The governor often says there’s no giving up on this guy.
Ellmer shed some light on being born from the so-called wrong end of the trail 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 talk about it until the end of the evening because they could win.”
Several tables away, Judy Boone was beaming. Boone founded and still runs Judy Boone Realty, the dominant player in Ocean View and one of the area’s largest real estate agencies.
She grew up two doors down 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 she moved to Cape View Avenue, a thoroughfare.
âA few years ago I asked Dennis, ‘Can you believe what we’ve accomplished?’â she said. “He was like, ‘Judy, we didn’t have much, but it was fun to make money and we were loved. “”
Ellmer spoke fondly of her parents, Lewis and Georgianna. Lewis fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars and for a time was missing and presumed dead in Korea. Shortly after the war ended, he arrived at 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 an outstanding athlete. Robert Roussos, a longtime Norfolk lawyer and former classmate from Norview High, played with him on several of these teams, including the Ocean View Aces football team.
Ellmer was, of course, captain of the defense at linebacker.
“Dennis was the guy who got along with everyone, who cared about everyone,” Roussos said.
This care was shown when he started working on an idea several years ago to train non-violent criminals to become car mechanics. He built a $2 million training facility in Chesapeake, worked with Republicans and Democrats to change a state law so nonviolent felons could conduct state inspections, and started 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 earning more than $50,000 a year and one earning more than $100,000, Ellmer said.
The idea was born from a trip to Fiji, when he and his wife, Jan, had lunch with their guide and asked him how he had learned so much about his country. He said he got out of jail learning to be a tour guide.
He met Jan almost five decades ago after she chose his face from a friend’s wedding album. Tony Cerza, another local car dealer, set them up on a blind date and they immediately hit it off. They have been married for 44 years.
“She was the core of our rock family,” he said. âWe moved nine times in our first 25 years and it was difficult for her. I wouldn’t be here without her.
The Ellmers have funded scholarships for ODU students and donate generously to 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 this to help people, most of them that no one really knows, that it would take a scroll for you to name them all,” said former Norfolk W. Councilor 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., a lawyer who was also a philanthropist , Ellmer said “tonight we stand on their shoulders. They led by example and showed people like me how to do our part to make this place better.
âA prize like this is not a destination. It is simply a milestone in a journey that continues,â he said. âI promise you I’m not done. I’ll wake up tomorrow looking for other ways to make Hampton Roads a better place.
Minium is a former pilot from Virginia and a reporter for the Daily Press.