“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the deaths of kings.”—King Richard II.
As this is written, it has been almost 22 years to the day since quite possibly the best newspaperman this state has ever produced died in a hospital room in Clarksdale – appropriately, with the same touch of class that had characterized the life preceding it.
His obituary, which I was honored to pen at his family’s request, read: “Joseph F. Ellis, for 40 years editor and publisher of The Clarksdale Press Register and a giant in Mississippi journalism…”and while accurate, like most such things was highly inadequate.
Joe Ellis was, and always will be known to me simply as “Boss.” That’s what I called him when I worked for him, and that’s what I called him long after.
On his birthday once, I sent one of those tacky little cards that you ironically send only to those for whom you really care, and inscribed it with an even tackier note that involved the term “old coot.” Later that day he placed on my desk a diabolically modified “Shoe” cartoon addressed to “Coot in Waiting.”
Boss, who was as prominent and influential a figure as this town had produced in many a year, was also its most consistently misunderstood. Sure, he was the newspaper editor and like all other such critters, the one folks were wont to cuss for everything from a paper not being delivered to whatever stance he saw fit to take on any given issue. He was no shining light of diplomacy nor a Dale Carnegie poster boy. Boss, when of a mind to, could be about as devastatingly blunt and generally cantankerous as anybody a soul might have the misfortunate to rile.
And I really do believe that sometimes he acted that way on purpose, as it had become something of his image and he felt obliged to keep it up.
Take his appearance: 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. And about half the time, one was apt to see him with “reminder”notes stuck to his tie—absent-minded professor, eccentric editor—you know, the “image is everything” deal.
But there had always existed another Joe Ellis. There had always existed another, very private man, who by his own self-imposed code of propriety had precluded the masses admission to what was always the the more elevated sphere of his existence.
He 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 Boss.
Ruthlessly hard on himself, he was quick to understand and forgive the shortcomings of others. It followed a pattern: when he saw someone stumble, he would wait until there was nobody else around to notice, and then he would pick him up.
Often said to have “the sharpest pencil in town,” one of his favored tricks was to give an employee a title rather than a raise, but if one of those same employees had a problem—braces for the kids, school tuition, a hospital bill—Joe was there without fail. He’d almost certainly cuss (creatively, mind you), and you were more likely than not going to be the recipient of a lecture, but at the same time it was between you and him and he he would almost always selectively forget the amount.
And for some reason—I know not what, but thank God for it every day—he took a special liking to me. Should anyone ever think Ray Mosby amounted to a hill of beans in this business, then know that it was he who taught me the ins and outs of beans; t’was he gave me the seeds; t’was he gave me the dirt in which to plant them; t’was he gave me the fertilizers to help them grow.
And I loved him, openly, unabashedly.
But I could do so because he chose to provide me a gift denied most others: He allowed me to know him. I was able to stand near the greatness, blessed to lounge leisurely within the light of the wisdom. I was privy to the warmth, the humor, the sometimes devilish insights, the always old-fashioned goodness.
Why me? I know not, though others have their theories and I have mine.
But it is as if this or any greater community of people would have been dwarfed by the magnitude of a man to a point that the gods who govern such felt its citizens would have been better served through lack of awareness of it.
But as those who truly knew the man recognized and the masses not so blessed likely failed to, his passings among us were privileged. And, as has been the case with so many before him, it is that kind of privilege which has become most evident within the hollowness produced by its absence.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.