Now here’s a story every North Carolina school child should learn. It is that of a kid who grew up on a Wayne County tobacco farm in the Great Depression, dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help support his family, worked at a variety of jobs and at 29, bought himself a hot dog stand.
From there, Bill Ellis worked hard, all day every day, first selling sandwiches and hot dogs and then barbecue he produced out of his small kitchen. And yes, he “made something of himself” indeed. When Ellis died last Monday of complications from a broken hip, he was 83, and Bill Ellis Barbecue had long been famous. At his retirement two years ago, the hot dog stand had become an 850-seat restaurant in Wilson, an 18,000-square-foot convention center, a hog farm with 450-plus sows and a fleet of catering trucks.
No mystery to it, Ellis would have said. In 1987, The News & Observer profiled him, and he shared a little philosophy: “The harder you work, the better your luck is. And I’ve worked about 25 years night and day.” Yes, and he added a couple of decades or so on to that.
Ellis was a good-hearted fellow, hiring lots of local folks, and took a genuine, personal interest in all of them.
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He was a person not easily frustrated or defeated. Even the flooding of Hurricane Floyd in 1999 didn’t do him in. The business suffered perhaps $3 million in damages, but Ellis brought it right on back. Same formula: Hard work, and then more hard work.