‘A hero of mine forever’: Educator Carole Ellis started local MLK birthday celebrations

Carole Ellis, 84, started the first Sonoma County MLK birthday celebration in 1981.|

On a wall in her Santa Rosa home, Carole Ellis has photographs hung of Martin Luther King Jr., who she met as a young adult.

Ellis was studying in the 1950s for a bachelor’s degree at Tuskegee University in Alabama, where the “magnificent” civil rights leader came to speak. If alive today, Martin Luther King Jr. would be 93 — less than a decade older than Ellis, who turned 84 this week.

“He was a great person and he was a hero of mine forever,” said Ellis, a retired educator who was born and raised in racially segregated Jacksonville, Florida.

Years before Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday, it was celebrated in Sonoma County. Ellis and her fellow civil rights activists, Mary Moore and the late Rev. James E. Coffee, organized the first MLK birthday celebration event in 1981.

“I knew Dr. King, I worked with him during my adult life, so I decided for his birthday, I wanted to do something special,” she said in a phone interview.

The celebrations were later expanded to include an annual oratorical contest for youth to speak publicly about the themes of King’s work, including racial equality, love and respect. King’s adult children also came to speak at the events.

Ellis had a 40-year career as an educator, working as a teacher at Rincon Valley Middle School in the 1970s and in administrative roles at Santa Rosa’s Lawrence Cook Middle School and Hilliard Comstock Middle School in the 1980s and 1990s. Her last position before retirement was principal of Ursuline High School.

She was popular with students, many of whom say they were grateful for having a caring educator who listened and encouraged students to express themselves through student forums she held — including one held in the wake of the Rodney King verdict in 1992.

Kenneth Tompkins, a former student of hers who became a physician, told The Press Democrat in 1986 that Ellis “helped me establish my self-esteem and cultural identity.”

Ellis also served as a trustee of the Santa Rosa Junior College District board. The Carole L. Ellis Hall and Auditorium at the college’s Petaluma campus is named after her.

"I'm proud and humbled. I'm proud of the fact that I touched many people's lives, but I'm very humbled by the fact that they still remember me. I am so honored and so humbled by it. It's great,” Ellis said.

“When you've spent your life in a place, and you know that it's almost over, it's nice to be remembered.”

In retirement she stays informed on the news and current social justice movements, including Black Lives Matter, which she said makes her proud to see.

“So many people, they're keeping it up and they're expanding it and it is growing and that's what I like about it,” Ellis said of BLM.

See gallery above for photos of trailblazing local educator Carole Ellis.

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