Life Stories

Life Stories: Larry Ellis committed life to cars, helping those in need

CorrespondentMarch 10, 2013 


Cordell Jordan, here at right with Larry Ellis about nine years ago, decided to bury his grandfather in his shop uniform. COURTESY OF THE ELLIS FAMILY


  • Larry L. Ellis

    Born: Nov. 11, 1944

    1964: Marries Sylvia Ellis, and daughter LaShay is born

    1968: Moves to Raleigh

    1974: Becomes owner of Tunstall-Williams Paint and Body Shop

    1990: Divorced

    1998: Birth of only grandchild, Cordell Jordan

    Died: Feb.10, 2013

Larry Ellis’ grandson, Cordell Jordan, was handed the task of picking out the clothing in which his grandfather would be buried. The choice seemed natural – a freshly laundered Tunstall-Williams Paint and Body Shop uniform and his bedroom slippers.

It was only fitting that Larry Ellis’ wake and funeral take place at the shop as well. He had spent about 12 hours a day there, practically seven days a week for more than 40 years, first as an employee, but largely as the owner.

His only daughter, LaShay Jordan, decided on the location. She had been working alongside her father at the shop since she was 12. There was no other place on Earth he’d rather have been.

Among the 400 or so who paid their respects to Ellis last month were many members of the Raleigh Police Department, both active and retired. Under Ellis’ direction, Tunstall-Williams became the go-to body shop for squad cars, as well for as the personal vehicles of many officers.

Ellis also discreetly lent the department his own vehicles for stakeouts over the years, said retired detective Allison Blackman. “He was always accommodating to help the police department, loaning us undercover vehicles back in the old days when we didn’t have the money to own undercover vehicles,” Blackman said.

Officers made countless prostitution and drug busts hiding out in one of Ellis’ old trucks. His personal favorite was a Jeep Wagoneer, complete with wood paneling. By the time he died, he had accumulated a number of them.

Ellis did not believe in new cars, said his ex-wife, Sylvia Ellis. She and Ellis worked together at Tunstall-Williams for decades – following their divorce. “I just loved him,” Sylvia Ellis said. “He was just … my friend.”

Father figure, helper

His close relationship with an ex-wife said a lot about Ellis, said his brother, Bill Ellis. He took care of the people he loved, and the staff at Tunstall-Williams was like family.

“That’s the type of person he was; he didn’t hold any grudges,” Bill Ellis said. . “I have had one or two of his employees say he was like a father to them.”

For Tim Mixon, Ellis was exactly that – a father figure. He worked for Ellis for 21 years, from the time he was just 20 years old, and had been groomed to take over upon Ellis’ retirement.

“To my knowledge, he never turned anyone down when he was in need,” Mixon said.

At Ellis’ funeral, the homeless mourned alongside customers who drove luxury vehicles. “If they walked by here and they needed $2 to get on a bus to go across town, he was there to help them. If they just needed a cup of coffee, he was there to help them,” Mixon said. “He had a heart that just wouldn’t stop giving.”

Ellis grew up in Four Oaks, one of four boys. He was not much suited to school, and he repeated a few grades before dropping out in about the 10th grade, Bill Ellis said.

‘Artistic’ gift with cars

But he was anything but idle. Ellis had tinkered with cars as long as anyone could remember. “His eyes and his hands worked so well together,” Bill Ellis said. “It would be perfect when he got through with it.”

Ellis could take two cars of the same model, cut them in half and create a seamless new car from the parts, his brother said. He preferred the aesthetics of car repair to engine work.

“It took a lot of skill, but it was artistic as well,” Bill Ellis said.

He and Sylvia Ellis dated as teens, and they married when he was 20. LaShay was born soon after, and a few years later, the young family moved to Raleigh. He soon began working at Tunstall-Williams, a body shop that had been around since 1940.

When Tunstall and Williams decided to sell their halves of the business within a few years, Ellis bought them out.

Committed to shop

He had always been a hard worker, but he closed the shop on Fridays at noon to allow his employees a head start on their weekends.

He did not travel much and usually went into the shop both Saturday and Sunday to sip coffee, read his paper and catch up on orders, his ex-wife said. For pleasure he would hunt, or help his grandson work on an ’89 Chevrolet truck.

Throughout the day, Ellis had a stream of visitors, and many of them did not have a car being worked on at the shop. They were customers who simply wanted to drop in and say hello.

“I would go by his shop at least once every two weeks and just talk about life in general,” Allison Blackman said. “He’s a good guy.”

pon Ellis’ death, Mixon learned of a number of stories about Ellis’ generosity. There was the time a customer made his teenage son pay for the damages incurred in an accident, which totaled $1,200. When Ellis saw it was the son footing the bill, he insisted he just pay for the parts – only $300.

“There was a lot of times where he lost money by helping some customers,” Sylvia Ellis said.

Ellis had heart problems over the years, some requiring surgery. Still, the heart attack he suffered in the back of the shop was a surprise to his friends and family. He was only 68 and very active.

As difficult as his death was for his loved ones, they found it fitting that Ellis would finish out his days at Tunstall-Williams, where he had spent so many of them.

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