Ben Ellis Jr. is the kind of person whose death usually isn’t noted in a newspaper obituary.
He lived, he worked hard for many, many years, and he died on July 11 at age 87.
But ever so often, a person who simply did a job and did it well deserves his story told.
I met Mr. Ellis and wrote about him seven years ago, when he was celebrating 50 years of being in business in Tucson. He impressed me then and I wanted people to see the man I got to know.
When Mr. Ellis arrived in Tucson nearly 50 years ago, he was weak from pneumonia, drained by a lifetime of asthma and exhausted by the five-day bus ride from Cleveland.
Two days later, he mowed the lawn and trimmed hedges for a local doctor – and was busy from then on.
He had a variety of businesses, including one doing landscaping and selling fertilizer, but essentially he’s been doing yardwork here since that first Saturday morning in October 1949.
“When I got here, you could hold Tucson in your hand,” he told me in a 1999 interview. “I like to say that then Tucson was a wren bird’s nest. Now it’s an eagle’s nest.”
He augmented the income from yardwork by tackling various odd jobs around town – often two or three at a time.
He picked cotton in Marana for a farmer named John Anderson. While 300 pounds of picked cotton were a good total for him when he worked in Mississippi, in Arizona, with the dry air and his suddenly clear lungs, Ben picked 1,100 pounds of cotton in a day. He weighed 129 pounds but was carrying sacks weighing 160 pounds.
“I’m the kind of person (who’s) determined to beat everybody – and most the time I did, whatever it was,” he said, calmly stating a fact, not boasting.
During his early years in Tucson, besides doing yardwork and picking cotton, he was a ranch foreman, washed cars, sold fertilizer, did landscaping and was a night watchman.
Even when he landed a full-time job at Desert Sanatorium, which later became Tucson Medical Center, Ben did just about any job that came along, often substituting work for sleep.
He quit his “day” job at TMC in 1957, when his business, Ben’s Landscaping, began landing lucrative and time-consuming jobs. For years, Ben’s Landscaping worked for home builders such as PAT Homes, Beauty Built Homes and Chastain Builders Inc.
Ben still remembered his first landscaping job, which was to dig four holes 7 feet deep and 7 feet wide.
“I didn’t know too much about caliche – then,” he said with the understatement of someone who had attacked with pick and shovel the desert’s unforgiving layer of concrete-hard calcium carbonate.
Ben, with the help of friends, put in the lawns for Catalina and Rincon high schools. He also put in the landscaping for several local churches.
At its peak in 1972, Ben’s landscaping and yard maintenance business employed 42.
A fire in ’82 wiped out some of his business, and Ben, who was approaching 65, decided to scale back to strictly landscape maintenance .
Over the years, he developed a core of customers as faithful to him as he was to them.
Ben “is as honest as the day is long,” John Neis told me seven years ago.
Neis recollected one of his first encounters with Ben: “About 23 or 24 years ago, he came out and cleaned up the whole place for what I thought was a reasonable price. I asked if he did regular yard maintenance, he said he did. He quoted me a price that was unbelievably low. Four months later, there was a tap on my door. ‘John,’ Ben said, ‘this is too much. I can’t take that amount of money.’ He cut the price in half, and it stayed that price for 23 years.”
I talked with Mr. Ellis right before he turned 81 – and, even at that age, he didn’t plan to stop.
“I’m determined to not quit, to work as long as I can as long as I’ve got my health.”
And he did. He was on the job until June 8, after which his health prevented him from overseeing his crew.
His motto in life was simple: “Get it the way I did – work for it.”
A memorial service for Mr. Ellis will be held from 6-8 p.m. Sunday at Mount Sinai Baptist Church, 1724 W. San Marcos Blvd, and the funeral is at 10:30 a.m. Monday both at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church, 210 E. Lester St.
Jennifer Boice is senior editor for news at the Tucson Citizen and has worked at the paper in a variety of jobs for 23 years.