Ely Driver: One of the good guys

Sandra ClarkFountain City, Obits

Sometimes we see someone so frequently that we assume we know them. Then we read the obituary and realize we didn’t know them at all.

That’s the case with Edward Ely Driver III, who died on September 11, 2023, at age 87.

Ely and Phyllis were quite the pair, married for 58 years and incredibly compatible. I met them first at gatherings of Friendship Force, a group of adventurers with a subtext of world peace. Members open their homes as hosts and also travel as a group to host cities where they stay with individual families. “A world of friends is a world of peace.”

Our next encounter was at North Knoxville Rotary. Phyllis had invited Brian Salesky, then the executive and artistic director of The Knoxville Opera. The Drivers were big supporters and had recently volunteered at the opera’s signature fundraiser, The Rossini Festival. Of course, it rained. And the Drivers were drenched while trying to secure the cashbox, grab the inventory and flags, and run for cover. Hearing them recall the story was worth the trip.

Good people.

Then I read the obituary (here) and knew I should have been more respectful.

Ely Driver was the real deal. Born in a family of nomadic cotton farmers, he moved around a lot. “His was a close-knit family that traveled as a tribe.” He got through high school and gained admittance to Vanderbilt University. He earned a degree in civil engineering in 1963, then went for a master’s and got a one-year appointment to teach. That’s when he met Phyllis Nelke, who typed the tables for his thesis.

They were married in 1965 and moved to California when he was admitted to the doctoral program at Stanford. Phyllis worked for Varian Electronics. Ely never finished the PhD, opting for another engineering degree and a job at the TVA Engineering Lab in Norris, Tennessee.

He and Phyllis celebrated with a week in Hawaii and then drove cross country on U.S. Route 66. They settled in Fountain City. In 1973, the lab director took another job and Ely was named director – a job he held for 20 years.

And then he joined Pellissippi State Community College as head of the environmental program which included chemical, civil and environmental engineering. He retired in 2005, ending a career that included honors, awards and national recognition.

Ely and Phyllis have traveled to all 50 states, all the continents except Antarctica and 55 countries. A life well lived. His service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, at First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville. A reception will follow.

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