‘Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the deaths of kings…” – King Richard II
CLARKSDALE — It has been 24 years this month since a truly great man, for too long beset by suffering, died in a hospital room here. That fact, along with the other that I had unexpected conversations with both of his surviving daughters this week have compelled me to once again reminisce about the man that was both a giant in Mississippi journalism and a second father to me.
Joseph F. Ellis Jr., for 40 years editor and publisher of the Clarksdale Press Register, was known to me simply as “Boss.” That’s what I called him both when I worked for him and long after.
On his birthday once, I sent him one of those tacky little cards of the type you only pick out for those you really care about and inscribed an even tackier note involving the term “old coot.” Later that day, he placed on my desk a diabolically modified “Shoe” cartoon addressed to “coot in waiting.”
As I have often remarked, Joe Ellis was quite possibly the most misunderstood man in this city. Sure, he was the town newspaper editor and like all such critters, the one that folks were wont to cuss for everything from their paper being late to whatever stance he saw fit to take on any given issue. That’s hardly something I find alien.
And like most practicing newspaper editors, he was not a shining light of diplomacy. When of a mind to, the Boss could be about as devastatingly blunt and generally cantankerous as anybody a soul might have the misfortune to rile. I honestly think he just acted that way on purpose sometimes to keep up his image as such.
Take his appearance as example. Joe always maintained an appropriately fine wardrobe and “spruced up,” he presented an impressively striking figure. But for years, he slouched around town wearing rumpled pants and a sweater with a hole in the sleeve. The man’s memory was like the Encyclopedia Britannica, but half the time he was apt to have “reminder notes” stuck all over his tie – all contributing to the greater public perception of eccentricity.
But there always also existed another Joe Ellis, a very private man who by his own self-imposed code of propriety, had denied public admission to what was the more elevated aspects of his existence.
Boss first set, then held himself to higher standards of ethics and conduct than he did others. That was not contrived out of some sense of superiority; that was genuine; that was just Joe Ellis. Ruthlessly, often self-defeatingly hard upon himself, he was quick to understand and forgive the shortcomings of others. There was a pattern to it: when Boss saw someone stumble, he would wait until nobody else was around and then he would pick him up.
“Joe’s got the sharpest pencil in town,” was a sentiment shared by more than one employee, absent glee. One of his favorite tricks was to give somebody who asked for a raise a title instead, and for years he played a personal little game of “gotcha” with the IRS. But the very real fact was if one of those same employees had a problem – braces for the kid, tuition, just not managing to get by – Joe was there without fail. Oh, he was apt to cuss and you were getting a lecture, but at the same time, it remained between you and him, and more often than not he would selectively forget about the “loan.”
Allow me the latitude to observe that in my professional opinion, not the obviously more clouded subjective one, Joe Ellis was the finest journalist, the best newspaperman I have ever known. If, one of these days, anybody ever comes to believe that Ray Mosby amounted to a hill of beans in this business, it will have been due, almost exclusively, to the man I called “Boss.”
He, for whatever reason, saw something in me and took me under his wing. He taught me the ins and outs of the business. He gave me the seeds to plant; he gave me the soil in which to plant them; he gave me the fertilizers to help them grow.
I loved him, openly, unabashedly. But he allowed me to do so by providing me with what was denied so many others – the privilege of really knowing him, the proximity to stand near the greatness, the comfort of lounging within the light of his wisdom. I was made privy to the warmth, the humor, the sometimes devilish insights, the old-fashioned goodness.
For the people of Clarksdale, Mississippi, for the practice of journalism in all of Mississippi, for the world in which he saw obligation to pay rent for the space he took up, the Boss’s passings among us were privileged. But as with so many truly great men before him, his was that kind of privilege that has only become more evident within the hollowness now extant in its absence.