A life well lived | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A life well lived

Posted By on Wed, Feb 11, 2009 at 7:01 AM

It's a slow morning. So I'd like to reprint the best thing I read in the morning paper. It was the paid obituary notice for Ellis "Water Boy" Stafford of Gurdon. It's a testament to hard work, family and good deeds.

GURDON - Ellis “Water Boy” Stafford died on Sunday, February 8, 2009, in his home. He was 87. Ellis was born on June 5, 1921, in the Greenville community of Gurdon to the late Mr. Fred Stafford and Mrs. Lucy Ward-Stafford, Although Ellis attended the public schools in Gurdon he did not complete high school due to the sudden death of his parents. But he received his formal education from the “University of Hard Knocks.”

Since Ellis and his sister Essie Mae were the oldest of the living children, they became the “guardians” for the rest of their siblings. Ellis left school when he was in the sixth grade, and immediately entered the job market to earn money to help care for his siblings and himself. He went to work at Stone Mill where he used a wheel barrow to transport saw dust that was used to fire the boiler to generate steam to operate the mill where he earned $.75 cents per day.

During that time Ellis’ friendship and courtship began around 1934 with Beatrice Margaret Bragg when he was 13 years old and Beatrice was 12 years old. After courting for several years, Ellis and Beatrice were married on March 16, 1941. Following the wedding Ellis and Beatrice farmed for about three months and then quit because he said “they almost starved to death.”

On July 28, 1941, Ellis’ was hired to work as a laborer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company (MPRC). Since Ellis was only 20 at the time, the road master in the MPRC headquarters thought he was too young to do laborer’s work, and then assigned him to be his cook in his private home which was against company policy. When Ellis and the road master got busted by railroad agents for this violation 12 years later, he was assigned back to being a laborer in the Maintenance Department of the company at roughly 31 years of age. At that age the road master still felt Ellis was too young for hard labor, and then assigned him to another “light duty” position as a “water boy.” His duties were to carry water in two two-gallon buckets for the “extra gang” of 50-60 men which required his walking several miles a day in weather conditions of over 100 degrees in the summer and below freezing in the winter.

Ellis said “carrying water and flagging were the hardest jobs because he had to stand long periods of time, and he could never sit.” Ellis held the job as “water boy” for about 10 years. Hence his nickname as “water boy” will remain legendary throughout the railroad industry and amongst his friends and acquaintances around the United States.

During this time Ellis and Beatrice became landowners when they purchased four acres of land with an old house on it for $175.00 and a monthly payment of $10.00. Ellis described the house as being “so raggedy they had to sleep in rain coats to keep from getting wet when it rained.” For the next seven to eight years they struggled to make ends meet because the babies were coming.

In 1950 Ellis was laid off from the MPRC, and then started to work at the Reynolds Aluminum Plant in Gum Springs. After being laid off from Reynolds in 1953, Ellis realized an immediate sense of urgency to find work with all of those new baby Staffords to feed. He temporarily worked at the Oaklawn Park Race Track grooming horses. To save as much money as possible for his family, Ellis slept in the stables and cooked beans on a hot plate, which could have cost him his job had the stables caught fire, but he was blessed that didn’t happen. When the season ended at Oaklawn, Ellis worked as an independent scrap iron dealer. Ellis was later called back to the MPRC to work as a laborer.

In 1954 Ellis was promoted to mechanic helper and covered the south end from Benton to Texarkana. In 1955 Ellis bid on a machine operator’s position and was assigned to the position in Gurdon, and continued to cover the southern region. He was then transferred to Little Rock to build an electronic switching yard where he worked as a laborer and machine operator.

In 1961 Ellis bid again on a machine operator’s job in Gurdon which he received, but that job was also transferred to Little Rock and northern Arkansas. Then an assistant foreman’s job became open in Gurdon in 1963 which Ellis bid on and received, supervising eight men. In 1964 Ellis was promoted to foreman in Prescott and then to Hope to supervise the “tie gang” that was responsible for installing1,000 cross ties per day by hand.

In 1971 Ellis was assigned to be the foreman of the “rail gang” in Hope. The rail gang consisted of 75 courageous men who were responsible for laying at least a quarter mile of rail per day by hand.

Later that year, another foreman’s job became open in Gurdon which was assigned to Ellis who was responsible for supervising eight men to do track repair and maintenance. Ellis finished his career in Gurdon where he began on July 28, 1941. He retired in Gurdon on July 28, 1982.

Ellis said his proudest accomplishments were being one of the first men from Gurdon to Little Rock to build electronic switches and in 1970 when he was the only Black person in a group for the MPRC chosen to go to Washington, D.C., to accept the Harriman Safety award. Ellis proudly stated “they said I couldn’t make it, but I did. I started out making $2.47 per day and ended making $2,500 per month.”

Ellis is known throughout the country as a great humanitarian who supported many causes, and was very active in local politics. He was also a member of the board of directors of the Central Arkansas Development Council for over 30 years. Additionally, Ellis was a long-term member of the board of directors of the Gurdon Senior Center.

Ellis joined Roanoke Baptist Church at an early age, and devoted his entire life to maintaining the buildings and finances, mowing the lawn there and at the cemetery until his health would not allow him to do so. Being the diplomat that he was, he then worked out an agreement with the County Sheriff who now uses inmates to maintain the cemetery grounds.

Because of Ellis’ tenacity, determination and great working relationship with county officials, he was finally able after many decades to get the county to pave the dusty Greenville Road. Many people in the community never believed they’d ever see the elimination of dirt roads in Greenville. Ellis was very proud of his great accomplishment along with everyone else in the community.

In addition to his parents, Ellis was preceded in death by his brother James Stafford; three sisters, Dorothy Stafford, Clara Mae Ritchie, and Edna Stafford; daughter Gloria J. Stafford-Whitmore; and two sons, Douglas E. Stafford and Milton F. Stafford.

He is survived by the love of his life and faithful wife of 67 years, Beatrice Bragg-Stafford; sister, Essie Mae (W.C.) Brown of San Francisco, Calif., Carl (Mary) Stafford of Texarkana, Ark.; brother-in-law and sister-in-law, John and Serena White of Flint, Mich.; brother-in law and sister-in-law Archie and Marie Bragg of Chicago, Ill.; brother-in-law and sister-in-law James and Luise Bragg; sons, Harold (Velvia) Stafford of Camden, Del., Phillip (Jeannette) Stafford of Vacaville, Calif., Michael (Gracie) Stafford of Little Rock, Ark.; 13 grandchildren; 18 great-grandchildren; a host of nieces, nephews, cousins and cherished friends.

A viewing will be held on Thursday, February 12, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Mitchell’s Funeral Home, 1809 Caddo Street in Arkadelphia. A second viewing is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday, February 13 at Mt. Canaan Baptist Church, 504 South 5th Street in Gurdon.

Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. on Friday, February 13 at Mt. Canaan Baptist Church, 504 South 5th Street in Gurdon. Ellis will be laid to rest in the Greenville Cemetery.

The family will receive guests at Mt. Canaan Baptist Church immediately following the services.


-- with permission from Mitchell's Funeral Home

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