Leslie Ellis Jr., the founding chairman of the University of Central Florida’s biology department who served as acting university president after Charles Millican retired in 1978, died Tuesday. He was 87.

Ellis joined the university in 1968 after serving as chairman of the biology department at Mississippi State University. He retired in 1991, but returned to the university briefly in 1993 as interim vice president of research.

During all the years in between, he served in a variety of other positions at UCF and Florida Technological University, the name of the university until 1978. He served as the university’s first provost from 1981 to 1986, and his other positions included dean and associate vice president of Graduate Studies and Research, vice president of Academic Affairs, director of the Office of Research Park Affairs, and interim dean of the College of Health and Public Services.

“I remember when we first arrived that there were only two buildings and a lot of scrub land at the university, and how proud Dad was just being here,” said Ellis’ son Dan. “Also, when the university got what I think was its first computer and he took us all out there to see it. It took up a whole room.”

Etta Jean Juge, who was Ellis’ secretary and administrative assistant for many years, said he also was instrumental in laying the groundwork for creating the Central Florida Research Park.

“He was indeed one of the major cornerstones of FTU/UCF,” she said. “He was as solid and fair a person as one can find to help build a university.”

Ellis’ son Robin said the Research Park was “a love he took to heart. It was a great achievement with regard to bringing the private and public sector together to expand the school’s national notoriety.”

Ellis was born in Norfolk, Va. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Tulane University and a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma.

He was granted UCF professor emeritus status in 1990.

In his retirement years, he loved New Smyrna Beach, gardening and community service. He served on the board of Florida Hospital, and was an active member of First Presbyterian Church of Maitland. He was a member of the Florida Lions Foundation and many other committees and boards in the community.

John Shadgett, a colleague of Ellis in the early days of the university, added that Ellis was a gentle and scholarly man.

“Les was an early contributor to the development of UCF and he worked diligently to organize the UCF Retirement Association. He felt that the memory of founding faculty and staff should be preserved,” Shadgett said.

In addition to sons Dan of Maitland and Robin of Reno, Nev., he is survived by son, Leslie III of Berwick, La.; daughter, Christin Stafford of Mattawan, Mich.; 12 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.