Ed Ellis: Coach, Dean, Friend, and Father

Below is the talk I gave at the opening of the memorial service for my grandfather, Edwin Lee Ellis, last Saturday night at The Athenian School in Danville, California:

My grandfather was always very eager to start off each holiday meal with the tradition of giving thankssaying grace. I always hated that part Id just roll my eyes around and wish I could start eating already. But I always looked forward to it, because that meant that our family was together. We were all holding hands, we were having fun, and we were all about to enjoy a delicious meal.

I think it would be appropriate to start this talk off, on behalf of the entire Ellis family, with a few notes on thankfulness:

  • First of all, we would like to thank the Athenian School for hosting this event, and everyone that has been involved in putting this together. We are thankful for Athenian being such a wonderful institution. We would especially like to thank Eleanor for your caring, your dedication, and acts of kindness too numerous to mention. You are an angel on this earth.
  • We would like to thank the entire Athenian and Chadwick communities for all of the love and support that you all have shown over the years, and especially these past few months. When I organized and printed out all of the get-well email that was sent to my grandfather while he was hospitalized, it came out to be 82 pages long. We read each one of those messages to him. And while he could not always verbally respond very well, he clearly acknowledged each one. Some made him laugh. Some made him cry. Two of the emails we read left him shaking his head in disgust these were confessions of debauchery that both involved master keys.
  • I personally would like to thank two people who are not here today. Without these two my own personal experiences growing up here at Athenian would not have been nearly as rich: They are my next-door neighbor Lester Henderson, who taught me my whole life how to solve problems and how to love music, and my grandmother Georgia Ellis, who taught me how to enjoy life and how to love others. If asked who were three people that shaped who I am today, I would immediately pick Ed, Georgia, and Lester. Thank you to all three of you for everything you have given me.
  • And finally, again on behalf of the entire Ellis family, we are truly thankful to all of you who are here with us on this beautiful evening with this immaculate scenery as a backdrop to celebrate the life of this wonderful person. We are thankful that so may people cared so much about him.

Ed had built a long list of experiences prior to his arrival at Athenian in 1966.

He was born the so of Presbyterian missionaries in Iran, and by the age of 15 he had traveled through the Middle East, Europe, and even Japan. He attended the Stony Brook School on Long Island while his parents continued their mission in Iran, and it was there that he first began his interests in wrestling and football.

Ed then went on to attend Davidson College in, North Carolina, which he chose for the most part because of their wrestling and football programs. It was there that he began studies in education, and near his graduation he was invited by his aunt Margaret Chadwick to join them as faculty at their newly founded school in Southern California. He married his southern sweetheart, Georgia Mae Burroughs, and they immediately drove across the country to California to begin teaching there.

Ed spent the years 1942 to 1949 at Western Reserve Academy in Ohio coaching wrestling and football and teaching math, but by 1949 he and Georgia had three girls and one boy. Since WRA was an all boy’s school, the thought it best to find a school that was co-ed. They returned to Chadwick in ’49, and he served as dean of students and director of athletics there until 1966, when Dyke Brown called him up to ask with some help building up the institution where we now stand.

Ed was always an example of strong moral character, loyalty, trust, dedication and perseverance. In his retirement, Ed remained very active with the alumni associations for all the schools at which he taught and attended, and was very highly regarded by the students whose lives he touched over his long career.

When reflecting on my relationship with my grandfather in the days after he passed away, I recalled one item that kind of summed up how many of us related with him. It was summed up on one small, typewritten scrap of paper taped above his office doorknob, placed just about where your eye would look, if you were opening a door and not exactly beaming with pride about what you were about to talk with him about. If you werent looking, you easily would have missed this. It read:

Don’t trouble trouble,
until trouble troubles youĶ

Those were ominous words for those that had just ascended the long staircase leading up to his office. Does anyone else remember that besides me??? It was there for years just a little yellowing scrap of paper held in place by cellophane tape. I remember it well only because I opened that door about several thousand times in my life, without even thinking about it. And yet, when I was thinking about what Id stand up here and say, somehow that was the first damn thing that popped into my head.

Don’t trouble trouble,
until trouble troubles youĶ

For Fathers Day, it is common to give a gift such as a mug, T-shirt, or card that says Worlds Greatest Dad. I think that I am OK in saying that in the context of Edwin Ellis, this statement takes on a somewhat elevated meaning given the staggering number of persons that saw him as a paternal figure. My grandfather passed away just two days before Fathers Day this year. This Fathers day I was reminded of exactly what he meant to me. For all intensive purposes, and for lack of having one myself, I can certainly say that I saw him as my own father. I know that many of us here have similar feelings.

There is an old Sicilian proverb that says: “Only your real friends will tell you when your face is dirty.” Ed was always open with his opinions, spoke with us directly, and told us the facts right straight to our faces he might have been brutally honest at times, but it was also done with a true sense of caring. He told us exactly what we needed to hear.

This was the most important lesson that my grandfather taught me. I have to say that the hardest moment in my life was sitting with him in that hospital room and telling him what the facts were telling him that stroke, pneumonia, and cancer were not his friends right now, giving him a straight assessment of what his prognosis was, and telling him what he had to do if he wanted to have any hope of recovery. And yet at the same time, it was easy for me to find the will to do it, because he taught me how to behave in these situations: Be direct. Look em in the eye and speak the truth. Be brutally honest, but at the same time with a true sense of caring. Tell them exactly what they need to hear.

And lastly, I would just like to close with saying that we should not feel sadness in Eds passing. The way I see it, there is nothing sad here; nothing to regret. A wonderful, productive, and meaningful life does not end in sadness. We should instead feel great pride in having known him, having learned and grown from him, and having him as a friend and a father figure. So let us now celebrate Edwin Lee Ellis, thank him for all that he gave to us, and be thankful for all the ways he helped us become better persons.

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