Squirrel Spotting: Tim Ell and His Wedding Bells
January 28, 2020
In “The Drunkard’s Walk,” Leonard Mlodinow wrote: “Successful people in every field are almost universally members of a certain set—the set of people who don’t give up.”
Tim Ell, the owner of Zorells Jewelry in Bismarck, North Dakota, belongs to that set.
In fact, if Mlodinow heard Tim’s story, he might be inclined to use a more profound descriptive to explain how a North Dakota kid raised in abject poverty beat the odds to become a respected entrepreneur/businessman in his community.
I met Tim in October of last year when I visited him in his temporary mall location in Bismarck to discuss a Memoire initiative we were rolling out.
As I sat with Tim and his wife, Sharon, amid the close-out sale signs to discuss their business, it became clear his was a story that was both different and inspirational in the extreme.
It was, moreover, a living testimony to the power of the human spirit and an extraordinary example of what can happen when someone refuses to be defined by their circumstances. As Tim told me,
“I was too young to realize how miserably poor we were.”
Tim has no recollection of his father, who abandoned the family when he was only 4.
By the time he was 8, his mom had married so many times he was having difficulty keeping track of his ZIP codes and his last name; Hood turned to Hager, which turned to Ell.
What didn’t change was an endless succession of low-income apartments and trailers. One trailer in Mandan, North Dakota, where average winter temperatures range from a low of 1 degree to a high of 21 degrees, served as the family home for four years.
Tim described how his family wore multiple layers of clothing to bed to keep from freezing as thick ice accumulated on the trailer’s interior walls.
“I was the kid who dried cars with my bath towels at the car wash. I delivered newspapers to every trailer in my trailer court, no matter how bad the North Dakota weather got, and I cleaned and emptied trash for the neighborhood gas station every night for three years, earning $15 a week, so I could afford to buy clothes that would fit me,” he said.
Another constant was being the new kid in school, made even more conspicuous by having a free lunch voucher in hand, reserved for the lowest-income kids. By the fourth grade, Tim was on his fourth school.
While the other kids frequently complained about the quality of those school meals, Tim deliberately conditioned himself to eat slowly so as other kids didn’t know that lunch was not only the best meal of his day, but sometimes the only meal of his day.
When school resumed after Christmas break, Tim dreaded other kids’ discussions about the presents they’d received over the holidays. He recalls feeling shame and embarrassment as the gift conversations swirled around him, all the while sinking lower and lower in his desk chair, wishing to be anywhere but in that classroom.
The trajectory of Tim Ell’s life took a profound turn on his 17th birthday.
In the bathroom of a foster facility, armed with a bottle of ink, a needle and 17 years of desperation, Tim pulled up the leg of his pants and inscribed a tattoo on his ankle that was a promise to himself that he would one day make something of himself.
He didn’t know what that something was; that wasn’t the point.
But he was going to break the chain and become a success, and he had the tattoo to remind himself of that promise for the rest of his life.
That moment, in that bathroom, turned out to be the catalyst for the rest of his days and still serves to remind Tim of the lowest moment of his life.
One year later, by his 18th birthday, Tim had signed a lease on his first apartment, and he worked around the clock doing multiple jobs, none of them offering a promising career track.
Not long after, however, Tim got a call from a school friend who was working for a diamond company.
They were looking to add to their small team of diamond cutters, and they had burned through a series of people who had not made it through the trial week.
The following Monday, Tim was introduced to the team and commenced his week-long trial.
He was horrible. Monday turned to Tuesday and Tuesday turned to Wednesday, without any progress. Tim knew he was going to be let go on Friday.
After a desperate night of self-examination and angst, Tim approached the foreman who had tried to train him and offered to work for free if he would just keep him on.
He believed this was his opportunity to make something of himself and, sensing it was slipping from his grasp, he resorted to desperate measures. To his delight, the foreman agreed and Tim officially started his career in the jewelry business.
That very night, Tim got a second job to pay his bills.
He worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the diamond cutting facility and cared for disabled people overnight, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Tim managed to keep up that brutal schedule for an astonishing 13 years.
At this point, Tim started dating his wife-to-be, Sharon.
When he wanted to propose a few years later, he went to a local jewelry store to buy a ring.
The store manager asked Tim if he was interested in a job at the store. Tim jumped at the chance and accepted the position. He continued to work his night job without telling anyone, putting in 80 to 90 hours a week.
When Sharon and Tim started a family, Sharon would return from her day job and bring the kids to the mall to have dinner with Tim. Those precious minutes with his family kept him going until he finished at 9 p.m.
He then rushed home from his retail job to read his kids bedtime stories before leaving again for his overnight job. The kids never knew their father was working a second job as they slept.
The jewelry store Tim was working for won “Store of the Year” honors seven years in a row and, in addition to diamond cutting, Tim added manager, top salesperson and goldsmith to his ever-expanding skill set.
At 31, Tim shared his dream of opening his own jewelry store with Keith, the manager who had hired him.
Up to that point, he had kept the dream to himself, protecting it from the naysayers and critics. Only Sharon knew what he aspired to and, when he needed words of encouragement at his lowest points, she was his rock.
Keith offered to partner with Tim, and his dream drew one step closer to becoming a reality. The two friends worked out a deal that would allow Tim to buy out his partner after 10 years.
On Aug. 1, 2005, Zorells Jewelry opened its doors on S. Ninth Street and E. Sweet Avenue. After 14 years of sacrifice and toil, of working two jobs, Tim’s dream had come true. He had made it happen. He had defied the odds. He had brought to life the dream that he had so crudely tattooed onto his ankle in that bathroom stall on his 17th birthday.
Carol Dweck wrote in her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” that “exceptional people seem to have a special talent for converting life’s setbacks into future success.”Tim Ell did exactly that. He persevered through decades of struggle and all manner of challenges, with his dream driving him through those ups and downs. He simply wouldn’t let it go. Tim’s partner did, as planned, sell him his share of the business almost 10 years after they had opened the store.
No sooner had Tim become the sole proprietor of Zorells than he started making plans to expand the 2,000-square-foot store he and Keith had built to 7,000 square feet. The newly expanded Zorells Jewelry opened its doors this past November.
When Tim’s first son was born, he remembered hearing “Brahms’ Lullaby” playing throughout the hospital. It played in every room to signal that a baby had been born.The symbolism of that piece of music moved Tim so much that he still got goosebumps thinking about that experience years later when he opened the new Zorells.
To create the same magical experience for his customers, Tim erected a tower outside of his store with its own bell.The “Wedding Bells of Zorells” sound when anyone buys an engagement ring. The bells can be heard for blocks in downtown Bismarck and have become synonymous with the jewelry store. Tim describes his life today as “A Wonderful Life.” In the film of the same name, whenever a bell sounds, it signifies that an angel has gotten its wings. When the bells of Zorells ring, there are no angels getting their wings. But the guy peeping out the window of his own jewelry store on Ninth and Sweet, wearing the biggest smile in Bismarck and savoring the magical life events that he has helped create, might just be the happiest man on the planet.He even has a tattoo on his ankle to prove it.