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VIProfile: Kelly and John Elliott

Story by Gay Lyons | Photography by Tassi Williams

Kelly and John Elliott, 2021 co-chairs of the American Cancer Society’s Hope Gala, have established strong ties to their adopted city. Kelly, a Virginia native, “came to UT and never left.” She’s territory account manager for Pathgroup Labs. John, who grew up in Cincinnati, moved to Knoxville to join the family business, Elliotts Boots - Shoes - Sandals.

“I had some success in management with UPS,” said John. “In 1997, I came to help with management, and it turned out to be a perfect fit.”

In 1982, Jack and Joyce Elliott, John’s father and stepmother, started a safety footwear distributorship out of their two-bedroom apartment in Knoxville. Today Elliott’s Boots - Shoes - Sandals is a multichannel footwear distribution company with seven retail locations throughout Middle and East Tennessee.

“We first branched out with hunting boots and then ‘shoes to go to church in,’” said John. “Then we thought, ‘maybe we should sell their wives something?’ We sell all kinds of stuff now. It’s been an evolution.”

Kelly and John met through his father, something John describes as “completely out of character for dad.” Kelly, whose initial goal was to be a veterinarian, worked at a veterinary hospital and a kennel during college. “Jack had a million animals, so he was always there,” recalled Kelly.

Jack did more than encourage John to call Kelly: he called her and handed John the phone. “I moved here in June 1997 and met Kelly in July,” said John. The couple married in 2002 and have a son, Jack, age 11. 

John and Kelly needed only a little persuasion to agree to be co-chairs of the Hope Gala. Jack Elliott, John’s father, an honoree at the 2021 gala, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016 and with ampulla of vater cancer, a rare form of the disease, in 2018. “I hate cancer,” said John. “My mom died at 65. My grandmother had cancer multiple times. I’ve known so many people with cancer. I was touched by the stories of all of this year’s honorees. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time and money than for the American Cancer Society.”
Kelly was on the Hope Gala planning committee in 2019, when their friends
Brian and Shelby Quinley were co-chairs, and found that to be “a great experience.”
The Quinleys were key in securing the Elliotts as co-chairs.

“They had us over to their house, and they cooked us a really nice dinner and served a couple of drinks,” said John. “Then they popped the question.”

They took some time to think it over, but it didn’t take long for them to say yes.

“You never have the opportunity to have this kind of impact,” said John. “You can give a hundred here and a hundred there, but this was a chance to have an impact. Cancer touches all of us. If you can do anything, the ripple effect is great.”

“We vetted it,” he continued. “They try to give 75 percent of proceeds [from the gala] to the mission. They keep the expenses to 25 percent.”

“The money raised stays local if you pledge it local,” added Kelly. “That was
important to us.”

Having agreed to be chairs, the Elliotts tackled the task of planning the gala. They recruited friends to serve on the committee, a group John describes as “a bunch of go-getter Type A women.” The committee came up with the theme, “Under the Big Sky - Boots & Black Tie.” John and Jack’s travels to Montana to train bird dogs a few times a year was one inspiration along with the boots Elliotts is famous for, but they didn’t want to turn it into “a commercial for Elliotts.” The western theme appealed to everyone on the committee and led to a dinner menu that will include game and themed decor, including snow.

The Elliotts were supposed to be co-chairs of the 2020 Hope Gala, which became a virtual event. The 2021 gala will take place in person November 5 at The Press Room. The committee and staff take guest safety very seriously. The number of guests at the event and the number of guests per table have been reduced. In addition, guests must provide proof of vaccination or negative test results. 

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