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Clayton Loses Dedicated Public Servant - Former Firefighter & Police Chief Roy Ellis

10/11/2020

Police Chief, Firefighter, World War II veteran, cemetery supervisor, streets supervisor, building maintenance and sanitation manager…you name it, if there was a way to serve his community, Roy Ellis was doing it. We’re not sure there’s another person who’s served in as many roles for the Town of Clayton in its 150 year history. At age 94, Roy was the oldest living former Clayton firefighter, with 20 years volunteering to protect his hometown.

Last month, Roy Ellis, a humble and dedicated public servant, was laid to rest in Maplewood Cemetery with military honors and the admiration of town staff and leaders. 

“When I joined the fire department in 1975, Roy was a firefighter I respected and looked up to,” said Clayton Fire Chief Lee Barbee. “He was a quiet man, but when he did speak, I always listened because what he told you was wise and firm. Long after his retirement, I would go back to him to discuss changes in the fire service and he always listened and offered honest feedback. I’ll never forget his service and support.”

Born in Clayton in July of 1926, Roy was a Clayton boy through and through until his final days, when he passed away peacefully after a short illness on September 11, 2020. The only time he would ever leave his hometown was in 1944, when he was called up to serve in Italy during World War II and guarded the border near Austria and Yugoslavia.

“As he would always say, it was the clean-up of the war,” remembered Roy’s daughter, Sylvia Short. “They encouraged him to stay on after the war and offered him a military promotion, but no, he was coming home to Clayton, coming home to his Esther. Born here, raised here, Clayton was it…that’s just the way it was for him.”

After returning from war, Roy worked for a time at the Clayton Spinning Company in Downtown Clayton.  He would then join the Police Department and become Clayton’s Police Chief. The top law enforcement post would be the first in 30+ years of service with the Town of Clayton that had Roy wearing many, varied hats. 

Roy and Esther were married for 66 years and made their home on Compton Street in Clayton. When Esther began to suffer from Alzheimer’s, Roy was adamant about taking care of her at home. Eventually he would begin to take her to the Total Life Center in Garner a few days a week so he could have a respite from the difficult care. 

“He just would not give her up, we tried, but he would not give her up full-time,” said his daughter. “They were so good to her at the care center that after she died, Dad would continue to go up there every two to three months to bring the staff donuts as a thank you.” 

That kindness and caring for others was exactly what town staff of the Clayton Community Center remembered too. He would come to walk on the indoor track like clockwork at 10 a.m. almost every single day. 

“Not long after the community center opened in 2010, I went into the lobby and there was Roy walking in with his cane!” said retired, long-time Clayton Parks & Recreation Director Larry Bailey. “When I first came on with the Town in 1980, Roy was the first person I met. He was in charge of buildings and grounds and we would share the one tractor the town owned at the time. He would come in at 7 in the morning and mow the cemetery and town grounds, then he would fill it back up with gas and come by and let me know it was ready for me to take out to Municipal Park, the only park we had at the time. I would then mow and use the tractor to drag the field for baseball games.” 

“It was the perfect symbiotic relationship! It worked for him and it worked for me! And he would drive that little yellow cab all over town, you would see him everywhere. He kind of became synonymous with that tractor. And when that fire siren went off, you see him bringing that tractor in and jumping off to run out to a fire somewhere.” 

Roy’s commitment to firefighting was strong for two decades. He served at a time when Clayton’s Fire Department was called to emergencies with loud sirens that echoed through town…not pagers, radios or cell phones. 

“It was different back then than it is now, because back then, it was all volunteer,” said his daughter Sylvia, who lives in Raleigh. “We all remember sitting around the table and they would set that alarm off in town and he’d jump up and go rushing out the door to put out fires.  He loved being a part of that. I don’t know how he got into it, but it was just always something he was called to do. I guess it was just about helping people, about volunteering. Eleven o’clock at night or three in the morning. He was just driven to help the town and people. I remember his stories about someone losing a life and him coming home saying, “That was a terrible fire.” He said some of the worst things he ever saw in his life was when he responded to fires.” 

In recent years, Mayor Jody McLeod would send Roy a birthday card in July for his birthday. 

“Roy was richly blessed with a long and productive life and his decades of service to the Town were amazing,” said the Mayor, who remembers Roy retiring in 1988. “His love and dedication to the town was so evident and he continued that love and concern for the community and the welfare of others long after he retired. What an incredible public servant.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jason Thompson remembers fondly chatting with Roy at the annual Clayton Fire Department holiday dinners. 

“He used to be our only on-call person!” said Thompson, a long-time emergency responder himself in Clayton and Johnston County. “Whenever someone had an after-hours emergency, we called him. Back then, we had our own police dispatchers and we had to answer all of the Town of Clayton lines after hours. Whenever there was a water outage or there was some sort of emergency, those phones lit up. Our first phone call was Roy Ellis!”  

Chief Barbee and Roy’s daughter confirmed that those Christmas dinners with the fire department were something Roy looked forward to every year. 

He so looked forward to the Fire Department Christmas Dinner - that just highlighted the year for him,” said his daughter, Sylvia. “He called the invite his Christmas check and he would always say, “Oh, I wonder if I’ll get my Christmas check!?” So when he did, he would say with excitement, I got my Christmas check!” 

It was clear Roy loved to be around others. Everyone says he always put someone else first. Even in the weeks before his death, when he required full-time care at home, his daughter said the caregivers were always remarking how much he looked out for them. Telling them not to trouble themselves to get him anything and wanting to ask them about how THEY were doing, not talk about how he was hurting. 

“The guy would never complain…I know some days when he came into the center he was hurting, but he was just always in a good mood!” said Larry Bailey. “He was always asking how you were doing, about how your kids or grandkids were doing. He loved seeing his two grandchildren in Raleigh, but most of his peers had passed away. You could tell he missed his wife, you could tell they were close and were good partners. So the community center became his outlet and you saw that his visits were about more than just exercise. He was a quiet guy, but we would talk about the old days, about patching up old equipment when the town was so much smaller. Roy was just a gentleman and I don’t know how else to say it. Everyone just loved Roy. He never met a stranger, just a genuinely, genuinely nice guy. 

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit North Carolina, Chief Barbee had arranged for retired firefighters to come to a luncheon at Fire Station One to meet the new incoming class of young firefighters. Roy wouldn’t have missed it. 

“It was the last time the firefighting community would get to be with him,” said Chief Barbee. “But Roy got to share stories and fellowship with the new recruits, and many walked away with an appreciation for a bygone age of firefighting.”

Everyone who knew Roy agreed, he never wanted the limelight nor any accolades, and he never fashioned himself a hero…he was pure and simple, a humble servant to his beloved hometown.  

“I don’t think he ever thought about the danger…we just knew he was going out to do what he had to do,” said his daughter. “I would always say, “Daddy, is there anything you would want to do? I was always trying to get him to go back to Italy, but he would say, “Nah, I’ve had a good life, I’ve enjoyed my life and I wouldn’t have changed anything.”

Roy Ellis is survived by his daughter, Sylvia Short and husband Doug, two grandchildren Kelli Short (Tiffany) and Brian Short (Melissa), and one great-grandchild (Caroline). Condolences may be shared at McLaurin Funeral Home. Instead of flowers, consider a donation to Clayton Firefighters Association or Total Life Center in Garner.

Thank you, Roy, for your decades of service and your kind heart. You will always be remembered. 


 

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