Ole Ellis remembered as economic visionary

Washington County lost one of its most prolific leaders in economic development with this week’s passing of O.L. “Ole” Ellis, Jr.

Ellis, 85, passed away Sunday, September 12, leaving behind a legacy of leadership and service.

Ellis’ first career was that of military service. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army following his graduation from the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a marketing degree and was honored as a Distinguished Military Graduated. He went on to become a pilot and serve in staff and command positions around the U.S., Europe, and Vietnam, serving two tours in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal (1967), and the Bronze Star before retiring in 1979.

Ellis then began a second career as Executive Director of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce and quickly made his mark as an economic leader and visionary.

“Ole Ellis was more than a community leader,” said current Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ted Everett. “He was a mentor to many, who also gave his energy, his time, and his effort to many organizations within Washington County. Ole stood out to me because of his faith, his character, and his willingness to take his time to help move Washington County forward.”

Among those efforts was Ellis’ work to create economic new initiatives.

He helped establish the Chipley Development Agency in 1985, and later, the county’s enterprise zones, which targeted specific sites for economic revitalization through tax abatements and other incentives before sunsetting in 2015.

Ellis also served twice as Chipley’s Interim City Manager and was instrumental in bringing WestPoint Home (then WestPoint Pepperell), Walmart, and the Northwest Florida Reception Center to the county.

Ellis’ commitment to economic growth didn’t stop at the boundaries of Northwest Florida, however. He served on the board for the Florida Economic Development Council and helped rural communities gain more equal footing with urban areas as a founding member of the Rural Issues Working Group. Through that group’s efforts, legislation was passed under former Governor Jeb Bush to designate fiscally distressed counties as Rural Area of Critical Economic Concern, a designation that helps counties like Washington County qualify and rank higher for consideration in the grant process.

The Chamber of Commerce established an award more than a decade ago to honor Ellis’ enterprising spirit. Titled the “Ole Ellis Washington County Lifetime Community Leadership Award,” the award is given intermittently to individuals for outstanding work and dedication to moving Washington County forward. Appropriately, Ellis himself was the award’s inaugural recipient.

Fellow Washington County economic leader and current Chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission Gary Clark says Ellis had a “servant’s heart.”

“When I say he had a servant’s heart, I mean he lived to see his community, his family, and the people around him grow and prosper,” said Clark. “He always wanted to make a difference. He wanted to be a catalyst for making this community a better place live and work and he never care who got the credit.”

Ellis was married to his high school sweetheart, Bertha “Bebe” (Chunn) Ellis for 64 years. In addition to Bertha, Ellis is survived by their children: Chris Ellis, Terry Ellis, Derek Ellis, and Rachel Ellis Belser, as well as 11 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

“Dad was a champion for serving and making a difference for this community,” reflected Terry Ellis. “No matter what you do, it wasn’t a question of if you served; it was to figure out your place and how to serve. He did this in this family, his job, his community – in so many ways. He served and went above and beyond.”