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Scholarship established in Ellis’ name

Phillip Ellis will have the attention of students, staff, faculty and parents one last time in the auditorium of W.S. Neal High School Friday as a memorial service is held to honor his death.

Ellis died Monday afternoon at his home after a year-long struggle with cancer. He had served as principal at the East Brewton School for 21 years.

The school auditorium is one place Ellis felt at ease since the school was his second home and his second love, his daughter Elizabeth said.

“We wanted to give all those students an opportunity to say goodbye and the auditorium was the only place we could think might be big enough,” Elizabeth Ellis said Tuesday. “Of course we wanted to have the services there. W.S. Neal High School was Daddy’s second love behind our mom.”

Visitation will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday at O.C. Weaver Auditorium at W.S. Neal High School, with the funeral at 11 a.m. Friday at the auditorium.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Phillip M. Ellis Leadership Scholarship fund at First Exchange Bank.

Ellis is survived by his wife, Saundra, who is principal at Brewton Elementary School, and two daughters.

Elizabeth Ellis said W.S. Neal was her father’s “second love,” after her mother.

“He was a dedicated man to W.S. Neal,” East Brewton Mayor Terry Clark said. “It won’t be the same without him. He loved that school, and this community is really going to miss him. He was a good man.”

Escambia County Schools Superintendent Billy Hines knew Ellis for at least 30 years, and was hired by him as an ag teacher when Ellis became principal at W.S. Neal.

“He was dedicated to W.S. Neal and to the students and their achievement,” Hines said. “The concern he had for his students was something to behold.”

That dedication compelled Ellis to attend graduation in May, despite his health problems, Hines said.

“And he had a comment for each student that walked across the stage, just between the two of them,” Hines said. “He wasn’t going to miss that graduation. It was a special night.”

Ellis, who was a native of Evergreen, spent his entire education career at W.S. Neal.

“You don’t hear of people that dedicated anymore,” Hines said. “When anyone knew W.S. Neal, you knew Phillip Ellis.”

Ellis was an agriculture teacher at W.S. Neal before becoming principal, and was a member of the Alabama Cattleman’s Association and the Alabama Future Farmers of America Alumni Association. Last year, he was named to the Alabama Future Farmers Hall of Honor.

W.S. Neal Assistant Principal Patty Frazier said Ellis was both a “mentor and friend.”

“I will miss him quite terribly,” she said. “This is a very sad loss for us and for the students.”

Frazier — who knew Ellis since she was a student at the school but worked with him for four years — said he made a point to know the backgrounds of all of his students.

“He knew them, he knew their parents, he knew their grandparents,” she said. “They couldn’t tell him anything he didn’t know.”

And Ellis used that knowledge to help guide his students, Frazier said.

“He always took into consideration their life circumstances,” she said. “He knew their life stories.”

Gwynn Shell, who worked with Ellis as a counselor at the school for nine years, recalled one student who needed extra encouragement to stay in school and graduate.

The student had two small children at home and found it difficult to get to school on time because she could not get a babysitter so early. So Ellis told her that her check-in time was second period. The plan worked, and the student graduated and went on to become a nurse, Shell said.

“He never gave up on the kids,” Shell said. “He wanted to make sure they stayed in school. He would bend over backwards to accommodate them. He looked at each child individually and tried to meet their needs.”

In an online blog, former student Meg Ford wrote that Ellis had simply “finished” his battle with cancer, not lost it.

“High school was a special time in all of our lives, and Mr. Ellis was a huge part of making that time so special,” she wrote. “He will be greatly missed, but forever remembered by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.”

Shell and Frazier said they have not just lost a colleague, but a friend.

“He took me under his wing and showed me the ropes,” Shell said. “We had a special friendship.”

Frazier said school officials will try to continue Ellis’ legacy.

“We have some big shoes to fill,” she said. “I don’t know if we can do it. We’ll try to carry on what he wanted, which was for Neal to be a great school.”

Lisa Tindell contributed to this story.