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Mayor Friday Ellis

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Icon
Nov 11th, 2020
0 Comments
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ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

Since his early days, Friday Ellis has come a long way from when he lived in a 2-bedroom house behind a gas station in rural Northeast Louisiana. His has been a remarkable journey, filled with countless experiences and exceptional people who together prepared him for becoming a public servant. His journey recently led him to win the highest elected office in the City of Monroe. Mayor Friday was elected to serve the first time he sought public office – a distinction he shares with wife, Ashley, who became the 5th District Representative on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) a few months before she became Monroe’s First Lady. In many ways, however, Mayor Friday’s journey has only just begun. All that has gone before has been a prelude. Because of his steadfast determination to live his faith, to honor his family, and to empower all who live in the community he serves, Mayor Friday Ellis is our November BayouIcon.

Oliver Friday Ellis is named for his father, Oliver Gus Ellis. Well, sort of — Friday’s dad was known as “Mr. Friday.” The nickname came from his days collecting payments for the furniture store in Rayville. “A lady would see dad driving up the street,” Friday explains, “and she would shout, ‘Ya’ll better get your money right… here comes Mr. Friday!’” Friday was payday so that’s when Mr. Friday would collect. People loved Mr. Friday, and the name stuck. 

The original Ellis family moved to Louisiana from Missouri to find work as sharecroppers. They settled on the island near St. Joseph, but later moved to Holly Ridge. After finishing 8th grade, Friday’s dad left school to help on the farm. When he turned 16, he hitchhiked to Monroe to find work.

SUNDAY VISITS AND A SHIRT SET THE TONE

One of Friday’s favorite childhood memories was his dad’s “Sunday ministry.” Every Sunday he and his dad would get in the car and visit old friends and elderly in the nursing homes, occasionally taking small gifts. 

Mr. Friday was a character — someone you don’t forget. Friday saw firsthand his dad’s concern for others when they were having lunch one day at Baker’s Café in Rayville. They were seated inside visiting when an older African American gentleman, one of Mr. Friday’s friends, stopped to say hello. Mr. Friday introduced young Friday, and then they reminisced about their time sharecropping together. Then he said, “Mr. Friday, you have always been a fine dresser. I sure like your shirt.” Mr. Friday thanked him and said, “We’re about the same size, right?” Friday’s dad took the shirt off and handed it to his old friend who was reluctant to take it. Mr. Friday insisted. He then sat back down and finished his lunch in his undershirt. The lesson — that everyone has worth — resonated with his son. Later in life Friday realized that the story wasn’t about “giving the shirt off of your back” but was about doing the right thing and showing kindness to everyone.

THE CAJUN CONNECTION

Young Friday loved to visit his stepmom Lily’s family down in Baldwin, Louisiana. Here he experienced a completely new culture and loved every minute of it.  His days were filled running through sugarcane fields, playing with cousins, and helping out around the farm.

Today Friday remembers vividly the way of life that he experienced down south. His grandmother Drucilla and her friend Agleia, would gather in the kitchen to prepare meals for the family, with their stockings rolled down below their knees, stirring pots of food while speaking in French so the little ones wouldn’t understand the “grown up” conversations. 

“The men went to another room or out on the porch to smoke and have a drink,” Friday recalls. “It was there that I first smelled piped tobacco, and I loved the aroma.” Uncle Charlie’s pipe smoke smelled like cherry and vanilla. It would be some years later before Friday began smoking pipes – and his characteristic cigars.

This was a magical time filled with fun and family which was the inspiration for Friday to write a children’s book. It was a tribute to his dad’s remarkable life and influence. The Tail of Pookie the Possum is a charming story about an opossum that is teased because his tail is “different” from the others. It is a delightful character lesson that showcases Friday’s sensitivity toward others. 

COURAGE AND FAITH

In 1996, Friday enlisted in the Marine Corps. He hoped that this experience would give him a chance to grow, the opportunity to travel, and through the GI Bill, a way to further his education. Within the first 5 weeks of basic training, his military career was halted. MCL damage that he had suffered during high school football had caused his knee to swell. It would require further surgery to recover, and he was sent home to rehabilitate. 

Friday did what he knew how to do best – he went back to work. He found a job working at The Gap in the mall. It was a tough transition back to civilian life, but over time, Friday settled into school at Northeast Louisiana University and found a tight friend group at work. Friday met Ashley while they were working together at The Gap, but the two didn’t hit it off right away. They did, however, share a mutual friend, Corey Little. Ashley and Corey found a common interest in helping Friday find his faith. Ashley recalls, “It was obvious that Friday was a good person in search of something. He didn’t know what it was he was looking for, but we did.” Friday says this was a pivotal moment in his life because he had always felt unworthy and broken. Was he good enough to be a Christian?

Friday began attending church with Corey and Ashley. For the first time, the question of faith became real for Friday. When he lived with his mother, they moved often and “joined” a church in every town. When he lived with his dad and Lily, he worshiped in the Catholic faith. Later, he began worshipping as a Baptist again, but without ever truly committing. Corey and Ashley became Friday’s “faith partners” (the second major influence on Friday’s journey) and encouraged him to seek God. First West had a revival, and Ashley invited Friday to attend with her. They went every night that week. Friday witnessed people all over this community, young and old, living out their faith in a meaningful way. For many weeks, Friday continued to attend First West and eventually asked Dr. David Uth to be baptized. Friday remembers, “I told him that I was ready to commit my life to Christ, and he was the person I wanted to baptize me.”

LOVE? NOT SO FAST

Friday and Ashley’s relationship blossomed. After months of “just being friends,” they both realized their affection for each other and began dating officially. Friday was drawn to Ashley’s positivity, her deep sense of faith, and her kind heart. Friday remembers an uncertain time early in their relationship when Ashley invited him to play volleyball with her friends. “I consider myself a more contact sport kind of guy. Volleyball needed more finesse than I could offer. She was unimpressed with my skills. She eventually told me it was almost a deal-breaker!” Friday laughs. “Thank God for my devilish good looks!”

After a year of dating, Friday and Ashley married in May, 2001 at the Anna Gray Noe Park downtown. Many passersbyers shared the moment with the newlyweds – some looking down from their nearby hospital rooms at St Francis. It was a beautiful day, and life for the Ellis’s was just getting started.

Their marriage had barely begun when the two watched the September 11th terror attacks that stunned the world. Friday knew exactly what he had to do. He immediately re-enlisted in the Marine Corps, answering the call to duty. His Military Occupational Specialty training lasted two years. While Friday was in training, Ashley had a teaching job in San Antonio and visited him on weekends. 

Friday’s next assignment came as a surprise. Instead of being deployed overseas as he expected, his orders sent him to the Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow in Barstow, California. When he asked where Barstow was, the answer came — in the middle of the Mojave Desert!  Friday worked as a construction wireman on base, and Ashley began teaching at the local elementary school. “Ashley interviewed with one of the principals who noticed she was from Monroe, Louisiana,” Friday remembers. “He told her he grew up visiting his grandparents in Columbia every summer and her southern accent reminded him of home. What are the odds of moving to the Mojave Desert and meeting someone who spent every summer in Columbia, Louisiana?”

While in Barstow, working in the desert heat, the trenching machine broke down leaving the Marines with a decision – how to handle the oppressive heat and still get the job done. Friday’s platoon sergeant, Sgt. Christopher Garcia, arrived with tents, water bottles, and pickaxes. Garcia grabbed a pickaxe and began digging the trench by hand – an example of the leader working side-by-side with his men. On that day, Friday made a promise. no matter where his life’s journey led him, he would never ask anyone to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself. “Sgt. Garcia taught me that leaders not only set the example, but they inspire others around them to be better,” says Friday.

AND THEN THERE WERE THREE

After serving 4 years, Friday and Ashley moved back to Monroe. A few years later, their first son, Oliver Friday Ellis III, was born, and Mr. Friday got to hold his namesake grandson. 

Friday took some construction classes at ULM and then went to work for the City of Monroe in project management as a construction inspector. This gave him a working knowledge of Monroe’s infrastructure limitations, an understanding that would pay dividends when he would become mayor years later.

Around this time, Friday and Ashley were expecting their second child, Asher Ellis. Sadly, just before Asher was born, Friday’s dad passed away. This was a challenging time for Friday. He was very close to his dad and for the first time in his life, he felt alone in the world. “You never understand the loss of a parent until it happens to you,” Friday says. “My dad was my person, the man who raised me, molded me, and would give the shirt off his back. I was devastated, and it took me many years to recover from the loss of my father.”

In 2012 Ashley finished her master’s in Education Leadership from ULM and was encouraged by a friend to apply for the Communications and Curriculum Director position in small town north of Kansas City, Missouri. She and Friday checked it out and discovered Weston to be a perfectly charming small town with no big box stores, no chain restaurants, and a vibrant community spirit. Years later, this spirit evidenced through community chef’s tables inspired Friday’s launching Governor’s Table and the Garden District Block Party, both designed to bring together the arts, good food, and good music in a setting that would bring people together.

As Friday puts it, Ashley took the job and he became “Mr. Mom” to sons Friday (6) and Asher (3). While living there with some free time, two important things happened. First, Friday learned how to roll cigars (it isn’t easy) and how to blend tobacco to get a special flavor (again, not easy). His new friends at Weston Tobacco taught him everything they could about techniques and blends. Friday began schooling himself on the finer points of cigar making, and discovered that he had a keen “palate” for identifying different tobaccos. (Today he can blind taste an un-banded cigar and identify what tobacco leaves were used to make the blend.) Secondly, Friday took classes at the local community college thinking that he might become a teacher. There he met a free-spirited marketing teacher named Jim Moes.

After Friday turned in a paper for Moes’ marketing class about how to grow an established cigar business (and had given Moes 3 cigars to smoke while he was grading it), Moes asked Friday what he was doing majoring in education. He pointed out that most of Friday’s papers were about cigars of the cigar cottage industry. “You have a passion for cigars, Friday,” he said. “Maybe you should seek a career in the cigar industry?”

At the same time, two health challenges emerged. Ashley was increasingly concerned about her mother who was suffering from dementia. Friday and Ashley decided that moving home to care for her mother was the best decision. They packed up, sold their house and drove home.

nother issue was that Ashley was experiencing severe joint pain. It was beginning to impact her everyday life. She was advised that if things progressed, they would need to decide if they would have more children. “Ashley wasn’t worried, but she did feel an overwhelming sense of comfort in what was next for our family,” Friday remembers. “She decided to leave it in God’s hands, allowing his will to be done. I’ve never seen Ashley so content to move forward and let it be.”

In 2015, Friday and Ashley adopted Aurie after fostering to adopt for several months. A beautiful child and family had found each other through a teacher at Richwood high School where Ashley was teaching. Friday loves to tell the story about the first time he and Ashley met Aurie. It was in West Monroe at Chick-fil-A and they were enjoying nuggets and fries while getting to know one another. “Aurie reached over and stole one of my fries,” he remembers. “I tell everyone that was when she stole my fry and stole my heart.”

THE CIGAR DREAMS BECOMES REALITY

When he moved back from Weston, Friday noticed that there was no shop selling cigars. He had dreamed of owning a business, but how to pay for it? He worked pipeline for a few months, saving every penny to go toward starting his business. With start-up capital in hand, Friday searched for a location. He rented space from Jimmy “The Greek” Johnston, who encouraged him to pursue his “calling.” Johnston told Friday if he could get him a box of his favorite Cuban cigars (Partagas Serie D #4) he would rent to him. They signed the lease for his first cigar shop over a box of those cigars.

In 2014, Governors Cigar and Pipe opened and almost immediately, Friday needed more space. He wanted to have chairs and tables where customers could come in with their papers, smoke cigars, and visit. He bought a former flower shop building on North 3rd and moved his business there. “It was the perfect setting for Governors,” Friday says. “It was an established, older home in an established, older neighborhood. That gave Governors a feeling of having been there a long, long time.”

In 2014, Friday and Ashley flew to Nicaragua to discuss creating their own blends with AJ Fernandez. Enrique “Ricky” Somoza (grandson of former President Anastasio Somoza) and Starky Arias, helped them understand the process. AJ, Ricky and Friday came up with Friday’s first blend entitled “Primera Dama” and plans were set for the North American debut at Luke Robertson’s wedding. As fate would have it, the FDA began regulating cigars for the first time and the project was tabled. 

Undeterred, Friday called upon his good friends James and Angela Brown of Black Label Trading Company, a cigar factory based in Nicaragua dedicated to blending and producing handcrafted cigars. Friday asked the Browns to blend 2 cigars for him – one for his palate (The Governor) and one for Ashley’s (The First Lady). The first production of cigars was sent to Governors, and through the skilled efforts and loyal following of Black Label, the two new blends sold out in one day. As a special gift to Ashley, Friday included in each box a copy of a poem he had written to her on their anniversary. 

A TIME TO SERVE

With a growing business, an amazing wife, and three beautiful children, many wondered why Friday decided to run for mayor. Turns out that his original plan was to run for the District 1 City Council seat that Michael Echols was vacating. When Echols decided to run for statewide office, Friday had a more significant decision – should he run for mayor?

Friday recognized that his most prominent opponent in the mayoral run was voter apathy. The key to overcoming that was to give people hope for something better that would impact everyone – a revived economy, a more profound sense of community, and a renewed spirit of love and acceptance for all citizens. He made a conscious decision from the very beginning to run “for Monroe” and not “against” anyone. Friday ran a modern campaign grounded in the vision that Monroe belongs to “all of us.” As he put it, “We aren’t afraid to do the heavy lifting. I want to see Monroe go from a city of memories to a city of momentum.”

While knocking on doors, Friday was surprised at how many people remembered his dad and would recount fond memories of Mr. Friday. As Friday walked the streets in every neighborhood, knocking on doors and listening to concerns for the city, flooding and crime quickly emerged as two critical areas.

COVID-19 and the Easter Sunday tornados changed the plans for the campaign, but not its trajectory. So did a medical issue with young Aurie that forced a suspension of his campaign for a few weeks. With all of these unforeseen challenges, Friday stayed focused. His days were filled with arranging deliveries of food and water to the tornado victims, clearing their streets and yards, and helping those whose homes had been destroyed find temporary shelter. His presence, marked by the presence of his old truck, signaled hope to those in need. That hands-on, boots on the ground approach made the difference in the election outcome.

THE FUTURE IS NOW

Friday’s journey continues. Today, only a few months in office, Friday is hard at work finding ways to help Monroe become the vital metro-center for the region. He has already taken decisive steps to reorganize City operations and to bring employees together as a team. As he tells everyone, “This City is worth fighting for, so let’s do it! We can’t sit around waiting for Superman. We must all step up and do something for our community.”

There is much to do, and projects to be done. “When was the last time you heard Monroe described as the ‘historic city on the river filled with arts and culture’?” Friday asks. Helping people to change generations-long perceptions of the city is a major goal. 

Failure no longer scares him. “If you get punched, get back up and keep pressing forward,” Friday explains. “In life, people often define themselves by their success or by what they do. It’s time that we attach ourselves to this city and work together to achieve its potential!”