Her Own Sunshine

Hello from the History Department —

When one thinks of the Elks, one doesn’t immediately think of baton twirling. Think again…

She came strutting and swinging into view with two furiously spinning batons catching the sunlight. She danced like Ginger Rogers. She did splits so gracefully you didn’t wince. And she made better catches than a pro-football end…. There was a girl who radiated her own sunshine.

–Don Duncan, columnist, The Seattle Times, July 11, 1966

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Original artwork by Eona Skelton

During the 1940s and ’50s, Gloria Ellexson revolutionized the sport of baton twirling. Throughout that era, she was a staple of Pacific Northwest parades and half-time shows, leading many a marching band, including that of the Tacoma Elks. Her talents, along with a winning smile and charisma, led her to opportunities in other regions and careers, including modelling in New York City and film acting in Europe. And while overseas, she met her future husband, a WWII fighter pilot.

A native of Sumner, Washington (just east of Tacoma), Gloria became known as a darling of the Pacific Northwest. She was a standout in baton twirling and marching bands, even as those sports became more and more popular in high schools and colleges throughout the United States. Students and teachers from her alma mater, Sumner High School, voted Ellexson “Most Talented” and she also received a “Personality Award.”

Her biggest booster was her mother, Edith Ellexson, who had her own talents – she led an old-time country dance band called the Red Peppers. Edith made sure her daughter Gloria made it to all her twirling rehearsals, events and contests, all the while assisting with everything from uniform repairs to organizing baton twirling competitions throughout Oregon and Washington.

Gloria experienced many exciting high points as a baton twirler. But there was a downside, too. The constant attention took its toll on the young girl, especially the whistles, cat calls and jeers from male spectators. Gloria recalled, “Of course, it’s very flattering, but, jiminy Christmas – it’s embarrassing, too! I don’t know how to act when they do that. So I just thank them and twirl my baton. When the women clap – that’s when I really know I’m doing a good job.”

After high school, Ellexson travelled to New York to pursue modeling, but within a year was back home, continuing her education at what is today’s University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. While maintaining a full-time scholastic workload, Gloria marched with the bands of UPS and the University of Washington (where she would later transfer and finish her degree). She also marched with bands of the local American Legion, Eagles, Veterans of Foreign Wars and, of course, the Elks. Parade season was a very busy time for Gloria!

Ellexson was known for her innovative footwork. As noted in a 1981 Seattle Times article, when Ellexson was with the baton twirling team at the University of Washington during the late 1940s, she introduced dance movements to what previously had been just a stand-in-place, stationary exhibition.

The year 1949 was particularly important for Gloria as well as for the Tacoma Elks marching band – long-time Tacoma Elk Emmett T. Anderson was elected Grand Exalted Ruler, the organization’s national leader. In celebration, the Elks marching band and twirler Ellexson accompanied Anderson to many big events, including to his formal installation at the Elks National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. A Montana newspaper reported that 130 or more Tacoma Elks piled into a special 11-car Northern Pacific Rail Road train en route to Cleveland. Making a pit-stop in Missoula, the Elks paraded through town, the marching band leading the way with Ellexson “strutting at the head” from the train station to the local lodge to stop for lunch before continuing their journey.

In 1951, the summer after her graduation from UW, Gloria was offered a part in an educational film produced by the University of Southern California, which was being filmed in Paris. Afterwards, she spent weeks traveling all over Europe, and even had an audience with the Pope. That’s also where she met Jack Duboise, a pilot who flew in the Pacific during WWII. They married soon after.

By the early 1960s, Gloria and Jack’s family included four children, and they settled in California. Jack enjoyed a successful career in dermatology, and he and Gloria became avid golfers, playing regularly well into their retirement.

In a “Where Are They Now” piece in the Seattle Times in 1963, Gloria’s mother Edith remarked, “Gloria still has all her university uniforms. In Costa Mesa, she directs a rally team of sixth-grade girls. Her daughter Janine is one of them.” The baton was passed to the next generation.

Written by assistant historian Caitlin Popp

1 Comment

  1. John Sneed on February 21, 2019 at 9:05 pm

    Great historical story. Thank you for sharing.

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