For eight years, Rodney Ellis led the N.C. Association of Educators as vice president and president during difficult times. He began in 2008 just as the Great Recession forced teacher furloughs and severe budget cuts, and served well into the next decade when Republicans took over state government and tried to eliminate tenure.
He stepped down from the teacher advocacy group in July after serving the maximum two, two-year terms as president. He told friends he looked forward to spending more time with his family, and returning to a Winston-Salem classroom to teach language arts to eighth-graders at a school that served a high number of lower-income families.
But early Saturday morning, Ellis awoke in sudden physical distress and never recovered, his family said. He died at age 49, leaving many shocked and saddened at the loss of a powerful voice for public schools.
Several state and federal officials and education advocates expressed their condolences over the weekend. Gov. Pat McCrory said Ellis’ devotion to education was a “labor of love,” while U.S. Rep. Alma Adams called him a “true fighter for equality.”
Those who worked closely with him said that while he represented teachers, the kids came first.
He made his decisions based on what was best for kids.
Brian Lewis, N.C. Association of Educators lobbyist for much of Rodney Ellis’ tenure
“I think his lasting legacy is whether you agreed with him or not, Rodney Ellis always stood up for kids, especially the most vulnerable kids,” said Brian Lewis, who was the association’s lobbyist for much of Ellis’ tenure. “He made his decisions based on what was best for kids.”
It was a mindset drawn from his upbringing, the oldest of five children raised by a single mom. A Mocksville native, he spent much of his school years in Cleveland, Ohio, before returning to North Carolina to enroll at Winston-Salem State University.
It was there that he met his wife, Lisa, and they started a family while both in college. Ellis left school to work at a large bakery and handle more of the parent duties while his wife earned her nursing degree. Then he returned to college to complete his teaching degree.
While there, he joined the student association affiliated with the NCAE and served as its president. He became an active NCAE member as a teacher in Forsyth County schools. He was elected to the NCAE’s state leadership ranks after serving as the Forsyth chapter’s president.
“Rodney always had this need, this urge, to make a difference in the biggest way he could, and that became working with this professional organization to help support teachers and improve public education for all kids,” said Sheri Strickland, who was the NCAE’s president while Ellis was vice president.
Though Ellis had an engaging personality, Strickland and others who worked with him said he didn’t seek the limelight and tried hard to build relationships with those who might not see eye-to-eye with the NCAE’s mission.
But often, the association collided with the state’s Republican leaders. In 2013, the House and Senate agreed upon a budget that eliminated teacher tenure and added money for private school vouchers. In response, Ellis joined hundreds of “Moral Monday” protesters being arrested for civil disobedience at the legislature.
Tripp Jeffers, a Forsyth teacher on the National Education Association’s executive board, said Ellis had lobbied hard to persuade lawmakers to drop those proposals, and thought he had won those battles.
“That’s when we realized we were clearly not on the inside; we were on the outside throwing rocks at the castle,” Jeffers said. “That’s when (Ellis) got arrested.”
The NCAE successfully sued to turn back the tenure elimination for those teachers who had earned it, as well as shoot down a law that would have prevented the association from collecting dues from members who chose to pay through an automatic payroll deduction.
Lewis, the former NCAE lobbyist, said Ellis was a voracious reader. He also enjoyed basketball, golf and step-dancing.
Ellis and his wife have three grown children and a daughter and son who are in Forsyth schools. Ellis was also active in many youth programs and coached an AAU boys’ basketball team, the SwishCity Magic. The couple’s youngest child is a member of the team. Ellis had a requirement that the players work on their reading skills at his home after practice.
“My dad was a family man, and he believed in the power of young people and the importance of education,” said his oldest daughter, Gabrielle.
She said the family Sunday was still arranging services.