Everyone has a unique story to tell. You never know whether the stranger sitting beside you is an astronaut or a cowboy. But, as a journalist one is always curious.
In the media tent at the 2009 Navistar Classic this past October, I met journalist Margaret Boland Ellis, an 83-year-old sweet southern lady who basically just appeared to be someone’s grandmother. But, I was charmed by her apparent love of life and those expressively animated brown eyes that seemed to say, “I’ve never met a stranger.”
During that time at the LPGA, “Miss Margaret” and I formed an almost immediate personal interest in one another, the kind you have with someone that is quickly undeniable but also quite inexplicable. For some reason, I had to know much more about her life.
As I sat down to speak with Ellis, she began to weave the fabric of the tapestry of her extraordinary journey. It immediately became clear that this was no ordinary person. Ellis had not only been a journalist for many years, she was also a publisher, an airplane pilot, an athlete, a coach, and a formidable proponent for gender equality in the sports arena.
Born on December 30, 1925, Margaret entered the world just in time to ring in the New Year and hasn’t stopped celebrating since. Her life has been filled with many loves; three children, sports, coaching, flying, writing, and whatever else that catches her fancy.
The only child of a 5th generation Mississippian, Ethel Nelson, and a “Yankee” from Worcester, Massachusetts, Leo Paul Boland, Ellis has many fascinating tales to tell, beginning with a fairytale meeting between her future parents.
“Dad was in Meridian in early 1900 visiting his sister,” Ellis began. “He got a job dressing windows at Kress. While he was working one day, Mom saw him and was immediately attracted to his blond hair and blue eyes … and she was one of the prettiest girls in the city.”
A friend of the family introduced the pair, but the first date was far less than perfect.
“In those days the usual date consisted of the gentleman calling for the lady, the pair riding the streetcar down to the drugstore to get a malt, then they would come right back home,” Ellis said.
“Also, the young man was to bring the lady a box of chocolates,” continued Ellis. “Daddy had no chocolates and mom was incensed, and to add fuel to the fire, at the end of the date he proposed to her and she laughed in his face!”
I’m sure the lack of chocolates had something to do with her rage, but there was also the small matter of religious faith. She was raised a Methodist and he was Roman Catholic through and through. The South was so biased in those days, too, for Catholics were basically shunned in favor of Baptists and Methodists.
It seemed that this love story was doomed from the very beginning. Much time passed and Ellis’s dad moved to Mobile, Alabama, to work with the local newspaper, The Press Register. In the meantime, Nelson’s father was killed in the 1906 Meridian tornado and her mother died shortly thereafter.
But, in 1913, Boland returned to Meridian, and obviously had not lost interest in Nelson. He decided one more time to propose and rather sternly told her that this was the last time he was going to ask her to marry him. And this time Nelson answered affirmatively. For reasons not known then or now, the couple eloped to a Baptist parsonage and was married two days before Christmas of that year. Ellis was neither of the two denominations.
“I was a cradle Episcopalian,” she said. “You see, daddy compromised a bit and started attending the Episcopal Church. He found it similar to Catholicism.”
Boland enlisted in an army-related Red Cross program during World War I. He and Nelson were married thirteen years before their daughter was born, but she was well worth the wait.
The future author was “writing a newspaper” in pencil in the third grade and worked herself all the way up to editor of the Wildcat newspaper in high school.
“I just always knew I wanted to write,” Ellis said. “It just seemed to be what I needed to be doing.”
This love of words continued, as she became the editor of The Spectator at the Mississippi University for Women and as a writer for Rebel magazine at Ole Miss (The University of Mississippi) in Oxford.
But, Ellis had other interests also. For example, one of her dreams was to become an aeronautical engineer, a rare aspiration for a woman to have in those days.
“In the fourth grade I built my first of several hundred model airplanes,” said Ellis. “I learned to fly when the circus was in town and in February of 1946 took my first solo flight.”
It was rare to see civilian women pilots in that year. Before that, from 1942 to 1944, only 1,000 women were trained to fly, test planes, instruct male pilots, and tow targets for anti-aircraft artillery practice.
Ellis went to Ole Miss only one year and graduated in June of 1946. Her dad had died, but had left the family, what he thought, was enough to live on and to support his daughter through college. However, after the war ended, prices were escalating and sometimes the family could not pay bills.
“I could go without eating at times so that I could pay to fly a plane,” said Ellis. “But, as an only child, I didn’t want to place a heavy burden on my mother. So, during one semester I took 27 hours in order to graduate early!”
And graduate she did, with a double major of Journalism and English and a minor in Math. Eastern Airlines offered her a job in February of 1947 in Atlanta, working reservations. In early 1948, a Vice President of Public Relations found out about her degree.
“He knew I had a journalism background,” Ellis said. “In those days a PR rep would enter a new city and do all of the advance work for the airlines and that’s what they wanted me to do.”
But, they were also trying to get people to fly, so they scheduled demonstration flights for teachers, boy scouts, for anyone who was interested in aviation. Ellis naturally involved herself in these activities.
“We got to see some air shows and I rode in the back of a DC-3,” Ellis began. “They would turn off one engine to prove it could fly on one … then, whey they restarted the engine, somebody had to be in the back to make sure it didn’t catch on fire.”
“That was me,” Ellis said with a chuckle. “I thought it was great fun back then, but now I can see that it could certainly have been potentially dangerous.”
Ellis was transferred to Mobile, Alabama by Eastern Airlines in 1950, and has remained in the port city ever since. She married Wes Ellis, a musician, in 1957 and the first of her three children was born a year later.
All three of her offspring were sent to St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Mobile, but she would not be able to afford to keep them at the Christian principles-based institution that was founded in 1947.
“In the late 1950s, the school only went to sixth grade,” said Ellis. “The headmaster said that they might have a place for my daughter in the sixth if I would handle the Public Relations for the school … and so that is what I did.”
In 1969, St. Paul’s school began the expansion from a grammar school to a high school.
“They were no longer going to be the little school in a church basement, so those were now my objectives as a PR person,” Ellis said. “And, oh yes, I was also coaching the ladies basketball team at the school.”
Ellis’s son, John, wanted to play Little League baseball in 1973 and his father, unfortunately, was not athletically inclined. However, Ellis was told that a woman most definitely could not be the coach of a Little League boy’s baseball team.
“Wes couldn’t throw a ball through a wet paper bag, but since he was a man they made him the manager,” Ellis said shrugging her shoulders. “They called me his assistant, but Wes never even made it home in time for the 3:30 practices.”
Ellis definitely had her work cut out for her “coaching” this team, who were reminiscent of the Bad News Bears.
“With the exception of John, no one else was particularly good at batting or fielding,” said Ellis. “So, I told them what we were going to do was bunt.”
Naturally what happens in Little League, is that the batter bunts directly back to the pitcher. The pitcher throws it out to right field, the right fielder throws it over third base, and you get a run off of the bunt. That is what Ellis was counting on and it most definitely turned out to be their secret weapon.
It was decided after the winning season that perhaps a woman could manage a Little League team and Margaret Ellis became the first woman in Alabama to do so. She continued to manage until John got into Dixie Youth baseball and was almost fourteen years old.
Ellis herself has played both baseball and softball during her life. She has played golf and up until just a few years ago tore up the competitors on the tennis courts … until “I began having trouble with my knees.”
This remarkable woman also began her own publishing house in 1996 when she was 70 years old.
“I always say, freedom of the press belongs to one that owns one,” Ellis said with a smile.
Be Good Sweet Maid and A Brief Garland are two books that Ellis wrote herself; the former penned by request at the Mississippi University for Women as a salute to their 100th birthday in 1984.
Ellis also authored The Irish Pioneer, which is a biography set as a historical novel and tells the tale of Tobias Boland, Ellis’ own great grandfather, who came to the United States in 1825 from Tipperary, Ireland.
Boland was influential in the Industrial Revolution that was taking place in America during that time. He was responsible for building numerous canals, railroads, buildings, churches, and was involved in founding The College of the Holy Cross located in Worcester, Massachusetts, but basically received no notoriety for his accomplishments.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the family tree as it were, because Boland’s great granddaughter would indeed play a strong part in gender equality in the sports arena and would gain no fame for doing so.
“I’ve always been involved in athletics and was fighting like crazy when girls were not allowed to play certain sports,” Ellis said. “I was coaching high school track in the early 1970s and the head of the High School Athletic Association would not let my girls run the mile.”
Herman L. “Bubba” Scott had served as the Executive Director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association since 1966.
“Bubba said that it wasn’t healthy for a girl to run the mile and of course, I strongly disagreed,” said Ellis. “I challenged him and said that his ruling was contrary to all scientific medical evidence.”
Scott again told Ellis that it would be “unhealthy,” would not relent, and the decision to disallow girls from running the mile stood … that is when Ellis took matters into her own hands.
“Since I was in an independent school, I filed a grievance with HEW (the Department of Health, Education and Welfare) and Title IX (accessing equal opportunity in athletics for men and women) had just been enacted,” she said. “I could not have filed a grievance if I had just been a coach, but my daughter was on the track team, so I filed it as a mother.”
This grievance took nearly three years to hear, but girls were indeed allowed to run the mile and even to pole vault if they wished to do so. I dare say that women’s golf also benefited greatly from Margaret Ellis and people like her who were not afraid to fight the system for equal opportunities for all.
For most of us, life’s experiences fade after time. But, all of Ellis’s accomplishments are written for posterity in a journal that she has kept since the age of twelve.
“I’ve had several people approach me about turning my journal into a book about my life,” Ellis said.
Margaret Ellis continues to have that same passion and indomitable spirit that drove her to become a trailblazer for women’s sports, start a publishing company, and fly an airplane when it really wasn’t “cool” for women to do so.
Ellis is truly an extraordinary woman.
For information on books at Magnolia Mansions Press, see www.magnoliamansionspress.com.
Article by Melissa Parker
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