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Chester Ellis [MEd '96] shares story behind his bid for Chatham County Commission chair

Chester Ellis [M.Ed. '96] serves as Chatham's County Commissioner
Chester Ellis [MEd '96] serves as Chatham's County Commissioner

We're proud to share another story of a Cambridge College alum making a positive impact in their local community. This one comes from CC alum Chester Ellis [MEd '96] who is running for Chatham County Commissioner.  Read the full story below:  

When County Commissioner Chester Ellis vocalizes concerns about hardships faced by struggling families, he speaks from personal experience.

A Chatham County native, Ellis grew up as the seventh sibling in a family of 10 kids living in a succession of rented homes around Savannah, some of them sharing a detached bathroom with neighbors.

A tragedy ironically propelled the Ellis family toward a more secure life.

"My younger brother, who was a year and two days younger than I am, got killed by a car, and from that settlement my father built a home in West Savannah," Ellis recalls. "Things became stable for us. We were no longer renters, we were homeowners then, and so that was a proud moment."

Now finishing up a term as Chatham County commissioner for District 8, Ellis is hoping to experience another proud moment by winning his bid as the Democratic candidate for Commission chair in the Nov. 3 election.

His platform aims to boost living conditions in all of Chatham's diverse communities with initiatives like improving county services and public education, promoting safe neighborhoods, and supporting business development by minorities and women. Ellis believes that if the county's underprivileged families achieve prosperity, this benefits all Chatham residents.

"We raise them up, we raise Chatham County up. You raise the income level of Chatham County, you raise the homeownership (rate) of Chatham County," Ellis said. "If we lift up the life of the poorest citizens of Chatham County, we also lift up the life of the richest citizens of Chatham County, because the two work together."

And though Ellis is now vying to take on Chatham's most powerful elected post, he intends to maintain a common touch.

"One thing I try never to do is to lose where I come from," Ellis said. "When you meet the needs of people, you go where they are, and you take them to where they need to be. It keeps you humble."

A grounding in faith

The Ellis family's humble circumstances were uplifted by their enduring faith.

"My mother and father opened the church, and they closed the church," said Ellis, who sang in the congregation's choir with his family. "I was brought up in the church."

While attending high school at Tompkins (now Woodville - Tompkins), Ellis also sang with the glee club and school choir. But sports played a bigger part in his education as Ellis joined the football, basketball and baseball teams, leading toward a 27 - year coaching career.

It was during high school that Ellis began dating "the love of my life, Wilmotine," with whom he's been married for 47 years and had three daughters.

Ellis went on to graduate from Savannah State University before earning his master's degree from Cambridge College and becoming a schoolteacher for 33 years.

Throughout his teaching and coaching work, Ellis remained active in the faith community, becoming an associate minister at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. There Ellis found a mentor in the late Rev. Amos Eugene Hagins, who served as senior pastor for 52 years.

"We were known as the community church with the community pastor, and so my pastor believed in working in the community and helping," said Ellis, who succeeded Hagins as senior pastor in 2013. "I kind of inherited that, and I have to keep that up, so the public service that I do is a part of all of that."

'The edge of a boom'

This community service led to Ellis taking an active role in the Carver Village Neighborhood Association, and in 2010 he was voted to be the organization's president, a role he still holds today and credits as his introduction to public office.

"I got to know folks who are in the Chamber of Commerce, I got to know folks who are in the Historical Society, I got to know folks in the state government and the federal government," Ellis said. "That led to me running for County Commission, because of the work I had done with Carver Village ... to improve the streets and the lighting and the patrolling."

After winning his bid for the County Commission's District 8 seat in 2016, Ellis currently serves as the board's vice chair, which he argues makes him best prepared to take over the top spot in January. Ellis narrowly defeated fellow County Commissioner James "Jay" Jones in the June 9 Democratic primary, and he is now taking on Republican Jason Buelterman — the former mayor of Tybee Island — in the general election.

To complement his own commission experience, Ellis is studying past county government administrations dating back decades.

"We have made strides, but we have made mistakes, and we have to make sure we don't make those mistakes again," Ellis said.

Ellis anticipates fallout from the COVID-19 crisis to continue well into 2021, and said he's prepared to take leadership over the county's ongoing response.

"None of us have a perfect plan for this COVID recovery, but there are things we have done that's working. Now, there are things that we are doing that we need to do better," Ellis said.

In an effort to help the county recover financially and grow with shared prosperity, Ellis wants to establish an income-based housing program and develop more job-training opportunities for Chatham's youths.

"Chatham County is on the edge of a boom," Ellis said, citing job-creating business developments underway countywide, like the Savannah-Chatham Manufacturing Center. "We have to be workforce ready. We have to have the people here in Chatham County able to do the job, and do a quality job."

Ellis also plans to tackle impacts of rising sea levels on Chatham County, with an aim to collaborate on a comprehensive long-term strategy.

"Global warming is real. We have to get prepared," Ellis said, adding that he'd seek state and federal funding to upgrade Chatham's flood-mitigation infrastructure. "What I want to do is get those resources in, get the experts in, get the common folks in, get the businesspeople in, and let's all sit down at the table and map out a master plan."

Above all, Ellis aspires to bring his community-based leadership approach toward overseeing the county's future with a spirit of selflessness.

"As a pastor, if you don't put your congregation first, then you're not doing what the Lord requires of you," Ellis said. "Citizens come before me."