During a memorial service Friday afternoon, John Ellinger (pictured above in 2013 with Paula Shively) was remembered as a big man with an even bigger heart, a gentle giant who left an imprint on the lives of everyone he met. “He set a tremendous example for all of us,” said Pastor Dave Garty. “He was a man of encouragement. He was a man who loved people. … He was the epitome of belief.”

John, 56, died Monday night at the home he shared at Stone Lake with his brother, George, and sister-in-law, Lori. He had been getting ready for bed after watching Monday night football when he collapsed. “I think his heart just gave out,” George said.

John had been undergoing treatment for a recurrence of cancer, but those treatments were ending, and he planned to return to ADEC’s Middlebury Day program after Thanksgiving. He had taken a year-long leave of absence after getting sick and looked forward to rejoining his friends. Cancer treatments had also forced him to resign  from his job as a dishwasher at Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury, a job he held for about 12 years, and from his position on the Board of Directors for Self Advocates of Indiana.

John was known around the state as a strong advocate for those living with the challenges of disabilities. Before joining the Middlebury Day program, he had worked more than 20 years at ADEC Industries. He also served as a former officer and founding member of ADEC’s Power for Independence (PFI) club. He participated several years in disability awareness presentations to local schools.

Just two weeks ago, on October 29, ADEC honored John with a Dare to Dream Award for the inspiring example he sets and the way he encourages others. “John found the same courage to fight cancer that he has used to overcome so many obstacles in his life,” said Donna Belusar, ADEC CEO, when announcing the award.

As word spread through the ADEC community and around the state about John’s death, many shared comments about him on social media sites.

“He was a great friend and a good man.”

“He was a great role model for how to live.”

“He was a gentle soul.”

Similar sentiments were shared at his memorial service at River of Life Fellowship Church in Middlebury.

A neighbor talked about John’s calming presence. “When he put his big hand on your shoulder, everything was OK,” he said.

Others shared about John’s love for all things Notre Dame, his bantering sense of humor, his harmonica-playing with the worship team at church and his strong faith.

“To us he was Uncle Jack,” said a niece. “To some he was known as John, Big John or the gentle giant. Those all don’t come close to describing the man he was. He would do anything for anyone.”

One of John’s friends from ADEC voiced what everyone was feeling. “John, I’m going to miss you,” said Mary Lou Hollinger.


John Ellinger (left) stands with Indiana Rep. Tim Wesco and Brandon Harty during a 2014 visit to the Indiana Statehouse.


John Ellinger (center) delivers school supplies to Bristol Elementary School with fellow officers from ADEC’s PFI club.