Leon R. Ellis, 71, called “Rhoddy” by family and friends, died suddenly from an apparent heart attack on Nov. 21, 2015, at his residence in Delray Beach, Florida. He had lived in Delray Beach for 15 years.
Born on July 22, 1944 in Washington D.C., he grew up in Oak Park, raised by Anna and Percy Julian, his aunt and uncle, as their son. Growing up during the tumultuous Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and ’60s, he and the two Julian children were the only African-American students throughout all their years in the Oak Park school system. Rhoddy graduated from Holmes School in 1958 and OPRF in 1962.
A great admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in August 1963, he boarded a bus with Chicagoans en route to D.C. to attend the March on Washington. The following year, he had the good fortune to have dinner with Dr. King and singer Nancy Wilson and her husband at the Empire Room in Chicago after Dr. King had spoken at a Chicago rally at Soldier Field. This was one of his most memorable experiences.
Rhoddy loved history, majoring in it at the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University. He had a phenomenal memory for names and dates. He had a career spanning 44 years in sales and the hospitality industry. Early in his career, he was a sales manager for the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. Following that position, he was Director of Development for the Chicago Urban League and, later, deputy director of Conventions for the National Urban League in New York. His longest position was with Westin Hotels as their regional and national sales manager. After leaving Westin, he became the convention manager of special events for the New York Convention Bureau.
In 1994, when Anna Julian died, he left New York and returned to Oak Park to live in the family home. He took a position as director of group travel marketing for Travel Counselor Service Ltd. and enjoyed taking groups on domestic and international tours. In the ’90s, he took members of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (one of the largest African-American sororities) for a tour throughout Egypt.
He moved to Delray Beach, Florida in 2000 and worked at the Colony Hotel and Cabaña Club, one of the national trust historic hotels in America. He was a prolific reader, averaging 2-3 books per week. He loved mystery novels, historical non-fiction, biographies and political satire.
In 2010, he became a regular volunteer on the information desk at the Delray Beach Public Library, a position he held until his death. He embraced this job, bringing to it his love and knowledge of books, his great people skills and his caring and concern for others. If homeless people came into the library, Rhoddy would take the time to find them a place of shelter; or if they were addicts, he would direct them to a place of treatment; or if a stranger just needed to use the telephone, he would allow that person to use his cellphone. He was always willing to substitute for another volunteer, even if notified at the last minute.
The library awarded him a certificate of appreciation each year for volunteering the most hours on the information desk. The staff and volunteers at the Delray Beach Library loved him like family and mourned his loss. In his memory, the library hosted a memorial gathering in one of its large conference rooms on Dec. 12.
Rhoddy Ellis had a wonderful sense of humor, capable of evoking side-splitting laughter. He had an indomitable spirit. Although he was very private, he was, nonetheless, a people person, lighting up a room with his presence, as he was warm and friendly to all. He was a leader, having exceptional organizational skills and boundless energy. He believed that “when people and their causes need you the most,” you should “be anxious to be there to help.”
Throughout his youth and middle age, he was an avid tennis player. In fact, he once played against Arthur Ashe. Although Rhoddy was no match for the tennis pro, he introduced his friend, Jeanne, to Ashe, who subsequently became Ashe’s wife.
He loved life and believed in doing one’s very best with each God-given day.
He touched the lives of many and his memory will live on in our hearts always. His legacy of courage, determination, wisdom, humor, and his refusal to give up serve as an inspiration to others along the journey of life.
He is survived by his two sisters, Olga Ellis of Baltimore, Maryland, and Faith Julian of Oak Park.
Contributions can be made in his memory to the Delray Beach Public Library, 100 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, Florida 33444.