Scenic Heroes: Ellie Kelly

Scenic America Co-Founder is Committed to Conservation and Community Activism

Ellie Kelly built her career around community activism and conservation issues—whether fighting for the reform of the Highway Beautification Act or advocating against water pollution. She is one of the co-founders of the Coalition for Scenic Beauty, now Scenic America, and a true scenic hero.  

Elllie grew up in suburban Baltimore, then attended Vassar College. She got married during her last year of school, then finished up her undergraduate studies at Boston University. She later earned a master’s degree in liberal arts from Johns Hopkins University.

“I came to conservation as a result of civic involvement, often alongside my husband, who was an activist architect devoted to historic preservation and appropriate urban development. I was increasingly involved in local policy issues, hoping to translate concerns into action,” she said.

Drawn to conservation issues, she became active in the Garden Club of America (GCA) in the 1960s, serving as chair of the National Affairs and Legislation committee in the 1970s.

“I became involved with one of their signature efforts, since 1920: to promote scenic communities and discourage billboards,” she explained. “The Highway Beautification Act (HBA) had been passed, and everyone thought it was the answer to unsightly Billboard proliferation along the highways—all except the GCA.”

She noted the GCA’s criticisms of the legislation: it allowed billboards in commercial areas; it required payment for the removal of illegal billboards; and it still allowed billboards 660 feet from highways instead of banning them altogether. Although the GCA enjoyed some early momentum, attention to the billboard cause was diverted in the 1970s to other environmental disasters. Nevertheless, Ellie continued to press for federal attention to the shortfalls of the HBA, meeting many times with Sen. Robert Stafford of Vermont, who had mounted a fight to reform the legislation or disband it altogether.

“I met with him so many times that his legislative aide begged me not to encourage his obsession,” she recalled.  

Recognizing the challenges associated with reforming the legislation, Ellie joined a small group of concerned citizens—including GCA members Marion Fuller Brown and Sally Brown, and Barbara Sanford from the New Jersey Federated Garden Clubs of America, along with Charles Floyd, Yale Maxon, Carroll Shaddock, and Ruth Becker—to form the Coalition for Scenic Beauty, the organization that would later become Scenic America. The group established a Washington, D.C., office and got to work.

“Once, Marion and I were in the bathroom when we heard two visitors to our meeting talking about ways in which they could thwart our efforts. I knew then that Scenic America had arrived. We had spies from the outdoor advertising lobby,” she recalled.

Beyond her involvement with Scenic America in its early days, Ellie has remained deeply committed to her work with the Garden Club and its affiliated organizations. She served as legislation chairman of the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland, which fought against the erection of billboards on the Baltimore Civic Center. Today she serves as chair emeritus of the board of the Rachel Carson Foundation and remains active in events at the Irvine Nature Center in Baltimore County, where she lives. She plays tennis twice a week and enjoys spending time with her six children and their spouses, 19 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren (and four more on the way.)

“The most satisfaction I have had is to enlist and inspire others to promote helpful policies for the health, beauty, enjoyment, and support for communities,” she said.