Title: Scott Depot, W. Va., resident and AU alum reflects on ministry
After 50 years as an ordained minister, he calls Billy Graham a dear friend, looks back on dining with President Jimmy Carter in the White House, and names countless dignitaries and celebrities he’s met as he traveled the world. But the Rev. William “Bill” Ellis grew up far away from the rich, famous and influential circles he moved in as a well-known missionary, evangelist and public speaker. In fact, he started out as a church janitor, whose first opportunity to step up to the pulpit came about by accident.
Growing up, Ellis attended a small community church on Cabin Creek in the little coal mining town of Wevaco, where he lived with his parents, Clarence and Goldie, his sister Marie and his brother Eldridge, also known as “Whitey.” The church lacked a permanent pastor, but Ellis served as the janitor during his sophomore and junior years at East Bank High School.
A few weeks before Ellis turned 17, the Wevaco church hosted a revival. Two locally known evangelists would preach, but they drafted a layman to read the Scriptures and make a few comments before the revival began.
But the man who was selected confessed to Ellis that he couldn’t read, and asked the teen-ager to lead the opening prayer instead.
“When I got through, they announced I would preach on Sunday,” recalled Ellis of the two preachers’ instant decision. “They didn’t ask me if I wanted to preach, if I would think about it or if I had a sermon prepared. In those days, you didn’t question the preacher. When they said that, I didn’t question them, I just got ready.”
When the Wevaco community church was torn down many years later, Ellis’ uncle salvaged the pulpit, which the 70-year-old retired minister treasures to this day.
Three years after his first sermon, Ellis became an ordained minister in the Church of God based in Anderson, Ind. His ordination took place May 3, 1950 at the Nitro Church of God, where the ministerial association held its annual statewide meeting.
On Sunday, April 30, the Scott Depot resident returned to talk about the people who shaped his ministry, including his parents, teachers and wife.
“My parents never said, ‘You won’t make much money’ or ‘It won’t be easy.’ My parents gave all their support.”
Teachers, ministers and professors befriended and encouraged him.
“I never had a teacher I didn’t like from first grade to graduate school. Older ministers let me preach when I couldn’t spell ‘preacher’. They let me preach when I couldn’t read. My college professors became my closest and dearest friends.”
But his closest and dearest friend in the world is his wife, Kitty, whom he met when he visited her church in Springfield, Ohio, for a weeklong preaching engagement.
“I think I married very wisely. Kitty is an invaluable resource and the most beautiful, talented, exciting woman I’ve ever met. She’s my favorite soloist, a good pianist and a wonderful mother. I don’t know anything she can’t do. I’ve often said she’s the perfect preacher’s wife. Actually, I should say she’s the perfect wife for a preacher, because there’s nothing perfect about the preacher. I would have probably been chased out of a lot of places if not for her beautiful smile.”
The two, who married when she was 23 and he was 25, will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary June 4.
She said she had absolutely no intention of marrying a preacher.
“I had in mind the stereotype of the strict preacher, like the one in the church I grew up in. He always had his eye on what you were wearing and where you were going. You couldn’t go to a swimming pool because boys and girls were together. And you couldn’t wear jewelry, which I wanted to do.”
But her suitor showed her that a preacher could be light-hearted and fun loving.
“Bill was a lot of fun and completely different from what I thought a preacher would be. He laughed and joked and was sports-minded, and I thought he was really good looking.”
A year after they married, the couple served as missionaries in Panama for two years, the first of their many trips abroad. In the ‘80s, they traveled to Kenya, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, England, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Belgium, Egypt and Ethiopia. Their last trip, in 1996, took them to Trinidad and Tobago.
At Anderson University in Indiana, Ellis earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology, a master’s degree in divinity in Christian education and the New Testament from the school of theology, and a doctor of divinity degree.
At the University of Illinois, he earned a master’s degree in communications and public relations, and continued his doctoral studies at another school.
For 25 years, Ellis pastored the Peoples Church of God in Decatur, Ill., where the couple raised two children, Mark and Liz. After his resignation, he moved back to West Virginia in 1989 to serve as the state coordinator of the Church of God until 1993.
In Scott Depot, the couple returned to the same house Ellis’ family lived in when they moved from Wevaco when he was a high school senior. Five years ago, they built a new pink brick house near the old one, with a library crammed floor-to-ceiling with books and souvenirs from travels abroad and a den with a wall covered with autographed photos of presidents, senators, religious leaders, major league sports figures and movie stars.
He said his life is proof an individual can go anywhere, no matter where they begin.
It’s been exciting, reflected Kitty, who all the same, had another kind of life in mind when she was a young woman with her sights set on marrying a doctor.
“I wanted money. I wanted to buy things, big cars and a big house. I had big dreams, but it didn’t turn out that way. But I’ve had enough money, enough clothes. I’ve traveled. I guess my values changed.”
--Mary E. Sanson is a reporter for Charleston Newspapers in Charleston, W. Va. The story and corresponding photo were reprinted with permission from Charleston Newspapers.