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Jenkins: He could look the whole world in the face

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comMarch 13, 2013 

Sometimes, a poet’s phrase really does capture a person. Longfellow’s “Village Blacksmith” applies perfectly to Larry Ellis, the owner of Tunstall-Williams Paint and Body Shop, who died February 10 after a heart attack in the back of his shop on South Saunders Street in Raleigh.

The poet wrote of that blacksmith, “His brow is wet with honest sweat, He earns whate’er he can, And looks the whole world in the face, For he owes not any man.” The poem describes a noble soul who worked hard and long and loved his family and was respected by friends as a fair and honest person. Longfellow came immediately to mind upon reading The N&O’s recent “Life Story” on Larry so well done by correspondent Elizabeth Shestak.

But this customer has more to say, and no doubt the man’s on the minds of many others as well. There are people in our lives who make a mark on us not because of fame or importance of position or some singular and noteworthy accomplishment, but just because of their character.

Larry Ellis, over the 25-year period I knew him, saw me and many others in states of nervousness, anger, sadness, impatience and embarrassment. He was always the same: calm, with that deep voice never raising, straightforward in his figuring, no nonsense unless you wanted to pass the time and tell him a story, in which case he was willing to listen and smile at the right spots.

One thing that did get Larry animated was any discussion of Cordell Jordan, his one and only grandchild. After he was born in 1998, Cordell became a subject Larry always enjoyed talking about, and enjoyed being asked about. Many others have said it to the now-teenager in the month passed, but take it from a stranger, son, who talked to your granddad about you many times: No grandfather ever loved a child more than he loved you.

On one of my first visits (yes, I had quite a car-damage curse going there for a while) to Tunstall-Williams, I saw a picture of the grandson in Larry’s plain little office. It was around Christmastime. Larry was talking about how he tried to be fairly conservative in terms of buying a lot of gifts for people, but “Now my grandson, that’s different. He’ll do all right.”

That time I had brought him, I recall, an old Cadillac which I’d tried to take through a car wash where there turned out to be more car than room. I’d managed to dent the entire right side. I explained to Larry that I’d be paying for it out of my pocket so I didn’t care if it was perfect. But Larry wouldn’t do something half way. Still, the price was reasonable.

He didn’t even make me feel bad that the mishap was an act of utter stupidity. “People do things like this all the time,” he said. “It’s not just you. But maybe that’s what you get for trying to wash your car.”

When I brought him another car with a huge ding in the side from the Crabtree Valley parking lot, he just shook his head and said, “People.”

Larry bought Tunstall-Williams in 1974, when the owners wanted out, and he’d been working there a while. Though he had not been interested in school growing up, he was a man without fear of hard work, and that made his shop a destination. Larry was always available, always upbeat about the chances of restoring a vehicle no matter what. On a given day, the shop had 10 or more cars and trucks parked in the lot across the street.

The work was done when Larry promised it and it was done right. And always he would tell a customer leaving, “Now sometimes things turn up later after an accident. You call me if that happens and we’ll make it right.”

He knew people, and no wonder. They would come to him in various states of agitation, sometimes in tears, and most had heard stories about how much body work cost. Larry went over things carefully, explained how long it would take, and always was true to his estimate. He was in a sense very much like a good family doctor. Even when you were going to have some complicated body work, you felt better after talking with him.

His reputation for integrity was known by insurance companies. I once had a $6,000 repair after an accident that was not my fault and there was no quibble from the other driver’s company. And when Larry was finished, he said, “Now look...if the insurance company isn’t going to pay the whole bill, you call me. I’ll work with you. You shouldn’t have to pay anything.”

He could look the whole world in the face.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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