By Steve Wolfgang
Kelly Ellis departed this life on Friday morning, December 2, 1988, at the age of 75. Kelly had cancer surgery in late August, and, despite a brief post-operative return home, developed complication’s and was hospitalized from September until his .death. Funeral services was conducted in Danville on Sunday, December 4, by Earl Robertson and this writer, with interment in the Buffalo Springs cemetery at Stanford, KY, next to his beloved Claudia, who preceded him in death by one year and two weeks.
Kelly is survived by his two daughters, Sue (Mrs. Richard H. Cooper, of Stanford, KY), and Betsy (Mrs. Mike Meadows, of Cleveland, Ohio), and by five grandchildren. Other survivors include a sister, Lee Hafley, and a brother Robert.
I doubt I shall see anyone like Kelly Ellis again on this earth. Though small in physical stature, he was truly a great man – partly because he did not realize how great he was. Totally unpretentious, he was knowledgeable about a multitude of things, ranging from mathematics to the Scriptures to antiques to poetry and many things in between. But Kelly was not only knowledgeable in some arcane sense; he possessed a rare, insightful ability to communicate that knowledge to others. I have said on many occasions that if anyone today had the “gift of teaching,” it was surely Kelly Ellis.
Perhaps his greatest quality, however, was not in what he knew or could teach to others, but in his willingness to “spend and be spent” for the kingdom of God (2 Cor. 12:15). When the Danville church suggested in 1976 that he take early retirement from the public school system in order to teach in their special classes for young men aspiring to preach, Kelly consented without batting an eye – even though it meant foregoing several of the best-paying years a teacher might expect. His agreeing so readily was simply an extension of the commitment he had expressed for more than two decades prior to that. During that time, he had repeatedly done essentially full-time local work for various churches for part-time pay, while spending his “vacation” time holding meetings all over Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. Meanwhile, he taught school for a living.
In this, he was following the example set by his own father, Charles Ellis. Kelly was born on September 3, 1913, near Gravel Switch, Kentucky – “down on the Fork,” as he would say. ~Those of you who don’t know where that is ought to visit there during the second weekend of October any year.) Kelly’s father, a, farmer, often would take time from his occupation to tend to his vocation – preaching. Often, young Kelly would see his father take a train on Friday or Saturday and return the following Monday, sometimes barely making enough to pay his fare.
Partly at his father’s urging, Kelly left the Fork to pursue his college education at Western Kentucky State Teacher’s college at Bowling Green. Kelly paid his own way partly with funds earned teaching in one-room rural schools after he finished his second year. Shortly before graduation from Western, he married Claudia Leber on August 13, 1940. With the exception of one year in Annapolis, Maryland during World War II, Kelly and Claudia lived in their native Boyle County all their lives. Although Kelly left teaching for a few years in the early 1950s to serve as bookkeeper for the Ford dealership in Danville, he returned to teaching in the late 1950s as the furor over “Sputnik” and the “missile gap” focused attention on the need for qualified teachers. Awarded several NDEA grants and local scholarships for excellence in teaching, Kelly continued his education at the University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky and then at Eastern Kentucky University, from which he earned a master’s degree in guidance counseling in 1962. Kelly served as guidance counselor at Boyle County High School in Danville until his retirement in 1976.
Kelly struggled with health problems most of his life. A serious abdominal infection contracted while he was teaching in Maryland during World War II – before antibiotics and “wonder drugs” – held him near death for several days. Surgery at the Mayo Clinic in the early 1950s resulted in the loss of part of his stomach. In 1973 he suffered two heart attacks, with another in 1985 and bypass surgery in 1986. It was a measure of the man that he never complained about his physical maladies, even when he was in pain. If you were not around him very much, you would never know any of the above. Kelly was not a complainer, whether his health was failing him or even when, on occasion, brethren treated him shabbily.
In fact, those of us who knew him will remember just the opposite: his deeply-ingrained sense of humor, indicated by that twinkle in his eye and the sly grin which appeared as he told one of his many “stories” – about Kentucky basketball, his weight, a former student’s misdemeanors, the perils of golfing, or, always among his best, some “preacher story.” I shall miss Kelly’s stories about as much as anything – but I hope to hear him tell other, better, stories someday.
During the late 1940, Kelly had begun to preach on a sporadic basis, as the need arose. As more congregations heard him, he began to be widely used in meeting work, and also preached regularly for the churches in Harrodsburg and Danville, strengthening them measurably.
But Kelly himself would tell you his strength was his ability as a teacher. During the fifteen years in which the Danville church has helped young men in their attempts to preach, probably 75 students have studied with him in an intensive curriculum of Bible study which he helped design and execute. Of those men, perhaps three-fourths are now preaching in more than a dozen states, Canada, South America, and West Germany; one student, Efrain Perez, is moving to Spain early in 1989. (For a fuller explanation of the Danville “Special Classes,” see Guardian of Truth, January 21, 1988, pp. 48-49.) I wrote then, and will repeat it now: “This program would not have begun or continued to exist without the services and commitment of Kelly Ellis.”
But Kelly could not only hold his own in the pulpit or the classroom; he was as talented a writer as there is among the brethren. I wish he had written more. He did produce one full-length adult Bible class workbook, God’s Perfect Plan, which is not only an able exposition of the scheme of redemption, but also exposes many false doctrines which have been substituted for the divine plan. Adult Bible classes would do well to utilize this workbook for classroom study. Young preachers, not yet fully grounded in fundamentals of the faith, should read it.
Another sample of Kelly’s expositional writing, which I read at his funeral, is found in his comments on the familiar passages in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 2 Thessalonians 1:7. “Paul was simply seeking to comfort the troubled hearts of the saints by assuring them that their loved ones would not be left in their graves, forsaken and forgotten. . . . No greater comfort can be given, and no greater hope can be entertained than that hope which faith in these promises is able to sustain in the heart of the faithful child of God” (Kelly Ellis, “Thessalonica: Trouble and Rest,” in Centers of Faith and Faltering: Florida College Annual Lectures, 1977, pp. 129-130).
Again, “Nowhere in the New Testament does the hope of the Christian shine more brightly than in these words, ‘and to you who are troubled, rest. . .’ Their patient endurance of affliction would not go unrewarded. . . . The ‘rest’ here mentioned is that which awaits the faithful Christian, not in this life, but in the world to come. It is rest and release from all of the temptations, trials, and difficulties of this present world. It is that rest which remains for the people of God . . . it was the promise of this rest that brought comfort and encouragement to the troubled saints at Thessalonica, and this same promise has inspired all Christians in every generation to”a life of faithful service and dedication to Christ and His church.” Truly, Kelly Ellis had “served his own generation by the will of God,” and then, like David and others, “fell asleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36).
But, also like others, “he being dead yet speaks” (Heb. 11:4) because of what he did and what he left behind – in the influence of his children and of his own writing. Kelly was also a poet; several of his works, published in various journals, had been read and recommended by Jesse Stuart, whom Kelly so admired. Several of Kelly’s poems serve fittingly not only as the conclusion to this article, but as an epitaph to his, own life as well, and I am glad to share them with you.
This land is mine; I paid for all of it,
With axe and plow and hoe I made it mine,
This old log house, this shade tree where I sit
And count the stars and while away the time.
I cut the timber from these rugged hills
Where oak and beech and highland poplars wave
To sun and stars and cotton clouds and rills
That carry waters to their ocean grave.
I grubbed the stumps and briars from rocky clay
And raised my crops, tobacco, corn and wheat,
From daylight to the close of Summer day
To feed livestock and earn the bread I eat.
I’ve worked and skimped and saved to have a place
To lay my head when evening time should come,
I’ve paid dues -I’ve run the honest race,
Contented now, I face the setting sun.
For I can sit out here among my hills
And touch the wind and see the twilight sky,
And listen to the frogs and whippoorwills
And be content and unafraid to die.
When destiny has fitted me for dust,
And winds of time have blown my life away,
And all my words and deeds are held in trust
And judged of you, the keepers of the day,
Lay me in native earth where I belong,
Where I have lived and loved the fleeting days,
And let there be no weeping and no song
For one who loves the earth in all her ways.
Raise then no monument of polished stone,
Let wild wind-flowers mark my resting place.
The winds will speak in leafy monotone
Strange epitaphs that time cannot erase.
Let wild fern drip her morning dews above me,
Let wild birds sing a dirge in woodland mood,
The silent stars will keep their watch above me
The while I sleep in death’s still solitude.
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 4, pp. 110-111
February 16, 1989