Graveside services were held Monday afternoon at Oaklawn Memorial Park in Center, where he had returned after retiring here effective Dec. 31, 2016. Center, where he was born, was also among five towns he served as city manager during more than 30 years in the profession.
Attending the services from here were City Manager Greg Hutson, Mayor Tim Marshall, District 1 City Councilman William Hornsby and his wife, Mary; city Code Enforcement Officer Fred Lawton, city utility clerk Javier Valdez, and former city Director of Public Works Brian Rodgers. Marshall said the service, preached by the Rev. Don Kitchell of Gilmer, was “well-attended.”
Ellington became city manager Jan. 1, 2005, after going to work here under his predecessor, Ron Stephens, Dec. 1, 2004, and had the longest tenure of any Gilmer city manager in the past 40 years. He announced his retirement nine months in advance, saying “I’m not upset about anything,” but was stepping down due to his age.
Hornsby, a councilman for the past 20 years, on Tuesday credited Ellington with helping bring the city “out of the red” financially. When Ellington took over, he recalled, “the city was in such dire straits” that its employees “would actually run to the bank” to make sure their paychecks did not bounce (none did).
Hornsby recalled that while interviewing Ellington for the city manager’s post, he asked, “Do you think you can help put this city back in the black?” He said Ellington told him Gilmer’s finances were in the “worst shape (of any city) I’ve ever seen,” but that he had helped other cities come out of the red and that “it’s gonna be difficult (to get in the black), but I will try.”
Ellington once said during a city council meeting that he had predicted at the outset of his tenure that the financial turnaround would take 10 years--and it had.
Besides helping cure the deficit, Hornsby noted, Ellington “paved and resurfaced about a dozen streets,” costing several thousand dollars, and procured a new police station. In addition, “all of the city’s equipment at the city barn was sitting out in the weather,” which is hard on the equipment, and “he built a huge shed” to house it as well as procuring a needed $100,000 boom mower, Hornsby recalled.
The councilman said he and current City Attorney Mike Martin, who also served during Ellington’s entire time in office, were the only current city officials who could recall how bad conditions were when the city manager took over.
Marshall, who proclaimed “Jeff Ellington Day” soon before the city manager announced his forthcoming retirement, said Tuesday that “as far as his business sense,” Ellington was “the right person at the right time” for Gilmer.
“A lot of the employees appreciated the input that he gave them,” Marshall said. They included the late Kathy Hoover (who was city secretary for Ellington’s entire tenure and up until her death in 2018), down to street department personnel, the mayor added.
Ellington said Hoover talked him into staying here longer than he had planned.
In making the surprise proclamation at the Jan. 26, 2016 council meeting declaring Jan. 30 as “Jeff Ellington Day,” Marshall cited “the outstanding contributions that he has made to the revival of this city,” noting “a dramatic comeback has been seen in the city overall health and financial stability” due to implementing “sound business practices.”
To show why he honored the city manager, Marshall provided The Mirror then with a list of “projects completed (between 2005 and 2015) utilizing contingency dollars and leftover accumulated dollars” as they became available.
They included, among others, a long list of street improvements, construction of city buildings, the purchasing of land for a new police station, drainage projects, airport improvements, the reduction of city debt by $16 million in 11 years, improvements in bond ratings, purchasing of new vehicles and equipment, and several current ongoing or planned projects.
The current or planned projects included, among others, replacement of water meters, street reconstruction, a new water well, replacing a lift station, and installing a “bar screen pit” at the sewer plant.
R.D. (Buck) Cross was mayor most of Ellington’s tenure, and when Cross was about to retire, Ellington said he was the best mayor he had ever worked with.
When Marshall presented the proclamation, Ellington joked it would probably cause the mayor to lose his next election.
The former city manager exhibited a colorful personality, wearing his gray hair long, saying at times he was asking the council to “bless” a proposal, and generally eschewing formal business dress.
Late in his tenure, he proposed and implemented a major street improvement program after saying that seeing his words in a Gilmer Mirror article about the lack of funds for it had “haunted me.”
Hutson, who worked under Ellington for two months before becoming his successor, on Tuesday said “He was a very unique individual” and “I’ve never met anybody like him.” Saying Ellington, a former coach and history enthusiast, “wasn’t afraid to speak his mind,” he termed his death “the passing of an era.
“He saved the city from bankruptcy,” said Hutson, adding “his advice to me and his suggestions were extremely helpful.”
Ellington returned here just last year for city officials’ and city employees’ annual Christmas party and seemed “in good spirits,” Hutson said. However, when City Secretary Maria Cisneros called recently to invite him to this year’s party, Ellington, who was diabetic, said he was not feeling too well and did not expect to attend, Hutson added.
“I’ll never forget him,” Hutson said.