Westmont Magazine Former Warriors Create a Scholarship for Westmont Baseball Players

Joe Ellett '97, Erik Ellefsen '97, Chris Kurz '97
Joe, Chris and Erik at AT&T Park (now Oracle Park), San Francisco

Baseball brought Erik Ellefsen ’97, Joe Ellett ’97 and Chris Kurz ’97 together. They all pitched for the Warriors, although Chris initially played in the infield. “We became fast friends,” Erik says. “Hanging out with Erik our freshman year made Westmont come alive for me,” Joe says. Chris and Joe roomed together their sophomore year. Then Dean Wilson ’97 invited them to join a discipleship group and make a lifetime commitment to each other. The three friends took it seriously.

The larger group got together at their 20th Westmont reunion in 2017, but Erik, Joe and Chris started meeting yearly in 2012. They traveled to Westmont to watch a weekend of baseball together, the first time the three had gathered since their weddings. The trio decided to go to a Major League Baseball game each year and study Scripture.

“A deep love for the Lord and for each other has kept us together,” Joe says. “That commitment in 1994 created a strong bond and helped us maintain our relationship over distance and time.”

They’ve discussed what they could do to bless people the way Westmont has blessed them. “How do I bring that with me and create it where I go?” Erik says. He’d done that as much as possible throughout his career — especially when he helped establish a Christian high school. “I know what I received at Westmont, and I miss it — so what do I do to recreate it in other spaces?”

Erik focused on baseball, the experience they shared. All three thought highly of their coach, John Kirkgard, and recognized that Rob Ruiz, the current coach, shared Kirkgard’s passion for developing people. “Coach Ruiz is phenomenal,” Erik says. “He’s a great man who cares about the spiritual formation of the players as well as their baseball skills.” Erik suggested the three friends fund a scholarship for baseball players, something that helped him attend Westmont.

“I knew we couldn’t accomplish this by ourselves,” Erik says. “We don’t have the resources individually. But we can do more together than we can on our own. We could help baseball players who might otherwise not be able to afford Westmont by giving them the experience and opportunities we benefitted from.” Joe and Chris signed on, and they’ve created the Ellefsen, Ellett, Kurz Baseball Scholarship Endowment.

Left to right: Joe Ellett '97, Erik Ellefsen '97, Chris Kurz '97
Left to right: Joe Ellett '97, Erik Ellefsen '97, Chris Kurz '97

“I’ve watched my former students go to Westmont and have transformative experiences like I did,” Erik says. “I never realized how hard I was working because we were all in it together, which created a sense of closeness and commitment that most people don’t experience. I’m happy we can extend that opportunity to others through the scholarship.”

Erik’s improbable story begins in Chicago, where he grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood. His father worked as a janitor at Wheaton College, and he enrolled at Westmont as a Christian College Consortium exchange student who also got an athletic scholarship. “I came to Westmont because of baseball coach John Kirkgard,” Erik says. “I wanted to play for a good coach who was also a good man. He promised my father he’d take care of me, and he fulfilled his promise. It was also an adventure to go far away from home, and I appreciated Westmont’s strong academic reputation.”

After suffering a career-ending injury his first year on the baseball team, Erik served as a student assistant coach. “Coach Kirkgard put me to work and gave me lots of opportunities,” he says. “I owe so much to him.

“I was a fairly broken kid after the injury,” Erik says. “A lot of pieces in my life needed to be put together and healed. Westmont was the first time I found peace and true and deep friendships. People like history professor Shirley Mullen and President David Winter helped me discover a hope and a vision for myself beyond the baseball field. I grew academically through the rigorous classes. I felt a sense of belonging and the Lord’s love and care that has influenced my professional life.”

Erik left Westmont to coach at Wheaton and finished his degree there, then did player development for the White Sox and the Giants.

He went on to earn a teaching credential, coached high school baseball and became a union leader in his Chicago district with a passion for school reform. “We wanted to do great things in the classroom and even better things for our schools and district,” Erik says. After teaching history and civics, he became a principal in southwest Chicago. Four years later, he moved to Boston to help establish Boston Trinity Academy, the only Christian secondary school in the city, and he served as its dean of academics. “We were all friends working together, and the experience was transformative,” he says. “It was a special and rare place; not many people get to experience something like that.”

He also studied education policy and school leadership through a doctoral program at Boston University, getting as far as ABD.

Then a diagnosis of multiple myeloma in 2008 interrupted his life and led to years of treatment, including chemotherapy and a double bone marrow transplant. By 2010, the doctors said they’d given him additional time but couldn’t predict how much. “I hoped for three years, but the Lord has kept me alive with new drugs and treatments,” Erik says. He spent six weeks in the hospital last year for CAR T-cell therapy — working from his bed and taking only three days of sick leave.

Erik and his wife, Kimberly, moved to San Jose in 2010, and he spent 10 years as a college counselor, encouraging students to attend Westmont. He now serves as director of networks and improvements for Baylor Center for School Leadership, gathering groups of principals, superintendents and directors to strengthen elementary and secondary education, working on issues such as curricula, pedagogy, technology, engagement and wellness. “We create teams of 10–15 schools around the country to collaborate on ways to improve outcomes for students,” he says. “I’m still passionate about school reform.”

When Joe and other high school students traveled to colleges in Southern California with their youth pastor, Joe decided to attend Westmont after spending just 10 minutes there. “The campus won me over,” he says. He played baseball, majored in sociology and met his wife, Suzanne Memley Ellett ’97, a fellow sociology major whom he married between their junior and senior years. They’re raising four children ages 14–21, all boys except for their youngest, a girl.

While Joe valued his classes and professors, he focused on baseball. “Spending more than three hours a day with the same guys really builds relationships,” he says. “Growing our faith together in the discipleship group was an amazing experience — as was being mentored by men associated with Westmont, Lindsay Parton ’75 and Byron Beck.”

After graduating, he and Suzanne decided to move to San Diego, where Chris was attending medical school. Joe got a job with the San Diego Association of Governments doing criminal justice research. He started work at 4 a.m. so he could leave at noon and coach high school baseball. “I wanted to see if it was something I’d like to do,” he says. After volunteering at one of the smaller high schools, he decided to pursue coaching and teaching. He began working on his credential, which took a few years. “I realized I wanted to coach and be around high school kids,” Joe says. “I also knew I’d enjoy teaching math. I love helping kids grow and develop.”

When Chris graduated from medical school and moved to Texas for his residency, Joe and Suzanne left San Diego for Menifee, where Joe teaches math at Paloma Valley High School. He retired from coaching baseball five years ago and now coaches cross country and water polo while helping with swimming and track. He has coached all three of his sons.

Joe calls Chris and Erik regularly to keep in touch. That’s how he heard about the scholarship. “We had a friend in our group who was always scraping to stay at Westmont, and I was happy to help,” Joe says. “We decided to contribute what we can and make it happen. It was important for us to do it together and demonstrate that you can have a life together even when you live far apart. I know I can call Chris and Erik anytime. It’s incredible to have people who are for you and who walk through life with you.”

Joe comes from a Westmont family. His brother and sister-in-law, John Ellett ’98 and Andrea Hidley Ellett ’98, also graduated from the college, he with a major in economics and business and she with degrees in religious studies and economics and business. They live in Temecula, where John works in property management and real estate.

Chris majored in biology and played baseball every year. He chose to pursue medicine instead of research so he could work with people. He joined the Air Force, which paid for medical school at UC San Diego, and served as a flight surgeon during his ophthalmology residency at Brooke Army Hospital and Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. He completed his Air Force service attached to a hospital at Travis Air Force Base in northern California.

Chris Kurz '97 tosses the ball on Westmont's Carr Field
Chris tosses the ball on Westmont's Carr Field

For the past 10 years, Chris has practiced ophthalmology in Virginia Beach. “I get to do what I like: helping patients,” he says. In addition to performing a lot of cataract surgeries, he cares for people with glaucoma, diabetes and other eye diseases.

He began his residency in family medicine but soon realized he preferred to specialize. He had enjoyed his rotation in ophthalmology, and it turned out to be a great fit for him. “God intervened and helped me talk to the right person at the right time to change my residency,” he says.

Like Erik and Joe, Chris values his time with the discipleship group. “The leaders hammered home the idea of doing life together,” he says. “They encouraged us to be vulnerable and share our highs and lows because this kind of fellowship is at the heart of the Christian message. Doing life together proved to be pivotal for the three of us. The lessons we learned in that small group were some of the most valuable I took away from college. They shape how I prioritize my time and my relationships with Joe and Erik and the guys in my local community.”

Chris creates opportunities for believers and non-believers to gather in Virginia Beach. “People don’t need information about God; they need situations where they can experience God’s love and acceptance,” he says. In his waiting rooms, he posts invitations to join him at Starbucks the first and third Tuesday afternoons of each month. He shares iconic passages from the Bible and leads discussions with the people who show up. He has discovered that many of them know little about the Bible.

“When Erik raised the idea of the scholarship, we were all in,” Chris says. “We’ve all got something to do for the Kingdom of God.”

Chris married Libby, an Air Force nurse, and they have three kids ages 14, 12 and 11. Last summer, she gave up nursing to become a full-time writer. She has published a chapbook of poetry, “The Heart Room,” and is working on a memoir. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in poetry.

“My primary ministry is my family,” Chris says. “I seek to design ways my kids can experience God and enjoy serving him."