Remembering Venora Ellis

Venora Ellis — whose long life and civic contributions in Westport would be memorable even if she had not been a proud, pioneering black woman in this almost entirely white town — passed away peacefully on May 23. She was 96 years old.

Her death cannot go unnoticed.

In 2009, TEAM Westport honored her with its Trailblazer Award. It said:

“In her 68 years as a businesswoman and resident of Westport, Venora Ellis challenged traditional social mores and shattered racial barriers, by action and example.”

That only scratches the surface.

Venora Ellis

Venora Ellis

Venora arrived in Westport from Mississippi in 1938. A dean at Tougaloo College told her there was work here as a “mother’s helper.” She liked the area, returned every summer, and in 1942 — thanks to a scholarship from Columbia University’s Teachers — she came north to stay.

Race relations were as hard to define here as down South. There was a bustling black enclave off Main Street, where Bobby Q’s restaurant is now. In the 1940s and ’50s it included a church, barbershop and nightclub. One night, it burned to the ground. The cause was never determined, and most residents never returned.

Venora opened a house couturier business. For 42 years, she dressed homes with draperies, bedspreads and slip covers, using expensive silk. She created items that were featured in Seventeen Magazine.

In 1952 she married Leroy Ellis, whom she had known at Tougaloo and who then went on to play music at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. He ran a home and industrial cleaning service. Every year, he sang at the Memorial Day ceremony.

The Ellises lived on Jennie Lane, and bought an investment property on Gorham Avenue.

They were active in town affairs. Venora joined PTAs, served on housing and human services committees, assisted with Project Concern and at the Senior Center, chaired the Bicentennial Ball, volunteered for the Red Cross and Westport Library, participated actively in Brown Bag luncheons, and was a docent at Martha Stewart’s Long Lots Road house.

Venora chaired the Experiment in International Living, which placed college students with families across the US. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, students stayed in her home — joining the one she and Leroy were hosting.

She also helped found the Intercommunity  Camp, which brought together youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport. She helped the innovative effort succeed.

Venora Ellis TEAM Westport

Life was not always easy. Storeowners on Main Street sometimes looked at her with suspicion — while, she said, white teenagers stole whatever they could.

Her 2 daughters were occasionally taunted. Venora told them to respond: “You spend all your time at the beach trying to get tan. What’s the difference?”

After 64 years in Westport, Venora moved to Pennsylvania to live near her daughter. Before she moved, AJ Izzo of Crossroads Hardware called her “The Mayor of Gorham Avenue.”

Also before she moved, Venora reflected on her time in Westport. “I’ve enjoyed this town so much,” she said. “It’s given me a lot — spiritually, culturally, educationally, business-wise. But I’m 87, you know. It’s time to move on.

Venora moved away, physically. Now she is gone from the earth, too. But her mark on Westport can never be erased.

(Venora is survived by 2 daughters, Nona Brady Ellis of Washington and Myra Parker of Pennsylvania; 2 grandchildren, Richard Ellis of New Jersey and Cheryl David of Washington, and 2 great-grandsons, Tommy and Jack Ellis.

(A memorial service is set for Saturday June 27 , 11 a.m. at The Church of the Good Shepherd, 186 Corum Avenue in Shelton. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Tougaloo College Office of Institutional Advancement, 500 West County Line Road, Tougaloo, MS 39174).

25 responses to “Remembering Venora Ellis

  1. Jamie Walsh

    Venora was the Mayor of Gorham Avenue and a wonderful, kind and …refreshingly….”tell it like it is.” person. I remember so many conversations with her and her husband LeRoy who was a great Jazz musician! What a jewel she was and the stories were even better! You will always be in our hearts and minds and will retain a place in both Westport’s history as well as Gorham Avenue!

  2. Matthew Mandell

    This is not how I want to start my day. Very sad. She was such an incredible person. I spent so many hours out on her stoop talking about whatever came to mind. And when Jamie says, “tell is like it is,” is not an understatement. She already has been missed, but this of course is different. RIP Venora, you made my time in Westport better.

  3. Great lady 🙂 RIP 🙁

  4. William Adler

    My parents were close with Venora and Leroy for many years. I was a counselor at the InterCommunity Camp and later on its Board and fundraising planning team. I’m thinking of them both very fondly. Thank you for posting this Dan.

  5. Laurie Sugarman-Whittier

    I knew Venora starting back when we were neighbors on Jennie Lane in the ’50’s, and she became a dear friend of my parents, and of mine as well. She was a wonderful, inspiring woman, and I’m so glad I got to see her again on my parent’s terrace just before she moved to Pennsylvania. I will miss her even more now.

  6. don l bergmann

    I particularly remember Lenora from the “brown bag” luncheons of former First Selectwoman Diane Farrell. Lenora was always engaging, thoughtful and uplifting. Her interactions with her husband, Leroy,
    during those sessions were always a joy. Lenora truly seemed to have a twinkle in her eye.
    Don Bergmann

  7. Laurie Goldberg

    Venora (and Leroy) welcomed us to Gorham Avenue in 1984. She showed up at my door with an armful of peonies from her garden. That was the beginning of a lovely friendship and my husband and I spent a fair amount of time with them. We loved them both and were devastated when Leroy died (does anyone remember that Grace Episcopal was filled to the rafters for his memorial service?) Dan, do you know whether her family is planning a memorial for her somewhere?
    A truly memorable and wonderful person, I feel lucky to have known her.

    • I added info on a memorial service at the end of the piece when I received it earlier today. Here it is: “A memorial service is set for Saturday June 27 , 11 a.m. at The Church of the Good Shepherd, 186 Corum Avenue in Shelton. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Tougaloo College Office of Institutional Advancement, 500 West County Line Road, Tougaloo, MS 39174.”

  8. Another thread that’s woven into the fabric of Westport’s treasure. May she rest in peace.

  9. Nina Streitfeld

    What a beautiful tribute to Venora! Thank you. Venora and Leroy were loving, kind and generous friends over many decades. I miss them both very much.
    NIna Streitfeld

  10. Rhoda Berke

    I too, remember Venora from Diane Farrell’s brown bag lunches. She was a truly lovely lady. RIP….

  11. Morley Boyd

    I met Venora some years ago when we were establishing Gorham Avenue as a Local Historic District. It was also at this time that Paul Loether, a man who went on to head the National Register of Historic Places told me that historic preservation usually starts out being about the houses but always ends up being about the people. Over the years I’ve thought about Paul’s comment and, whenever I do, this intelligent and graceful woman comes to mind.

  12. Susan Hopkins

    Lovely tribute, Dan.

  13. Dolores Bacharach

    I had the joy of knowing Venora Ellis through The Intercommunity Camp project. She was always gracious and charming to be with and generous with her time and intelligence. She was the real deal. Comforting thoughts go to her daughters.

  14. Dale Eyerly Colson

    Nona and I went to school together and sat together on the bus on most days. My sympathy, thoughts and prayers go out to her and the family.

  15. Sylvia Robinson Corrigan

    I was another Gorham Avenue neighbor of Venora’s. She was one of the most caring and truly neighborly people I have ever known. She had a heart full of love. And a garden full of beautiful flowers. She’d bring you a wheelbarrow full of topsoil if she thought you needed it.

  16. Jill Ross Beres

    I met Venora and LeRoy through my late husband, Paul Beres, MD. The 3 were very close and I loved knowing them both. Of course I remember LeRoy’s funeral, it was a majestic event. Whenever i had a problem, Venora would solve it for me, Two great people

  17. William Adler

    So many people who with their families have been important to Westport over the years are contributing to this thread – I feel like Venora and Leroy are still bringing everyone together with smiles!

  18. Jimmy izzo

    Well said Mr. Adler. Thank you Dan for posting, and so nice to read all the wonderful comments by neighbors and friends. Venora and Leroy were more then customers of ours at the hardware store, they were truly great friends. During cold winter months she would always call the store for me to pick up THE BEST potato leek soup ever…forget her generosity, she truly was an amazing women, as Dan and so many others have pointed out. The history of the civil rights movement I was taught by her and the late Tracy Sugarman, who lived it, just incredible stuff. We truly do learn from our elders.

  19. Dan, thank you for posting your comments about Venora, We lived 3 houses from each other, and passed many fine hours together. Venora loved to garden, the front of her house was abloom every season; we shared cuttings and many of the flowers in my front garden that bloom seasonally stem from Venora’s, and vice versa. We talked often, and she was one of the wisest women I’ve known. I’ve missed her since she left Westport; passing her house EVERY DAY always brings back many sweet memories.

    • Jamie Walsh

      I am beginning to think Everyone on Gorham Avenue has some of Venora’s garden splittings! She will be in our hearts forever and her flowers in our gardens! Very cool!

  20. Linda Schmidt

    We had the pleasure and honor of having LeRoy and Venora in our lives when we moved right next door to them on Gorham Ave. The first day we moved in we were greeted with a beautiful rose and a note on our door. We learned so much about life and history from them and LeRoy used to sit for hours and talk to my husband as he worked on our house and the yard. When we moved our elderly mom into our house Venora literally saved her life. One day we were out and mom fell in our front yard while walking our little Shih Tzu and broke her hip. Venora found her,took charge,called in the troops and brought our little dog into her home for safe keeping while we were desperately trying to get home in a traffic jam on the Merritt Parkway. After 7 years we moved away,then she did. She always kept in touch and we will cherish our hour long phone conversations on the speaker phone in our home. We would continue to visit with her from afar. Distance did not break the friendship and bond we developed with her. We will surely miss her but will cherish the memories forever.

  21. David Ohanian

    When my father, John Ohanian, came to Westport to start the music program in the public schools, Venora was his first friend. He was only able to marry his wife Phyllis after Venora “approved” of his choice. Our family and the Ellis family were close for all the Westport years and Venora even insisted on attending my mother’s 100th birthday 2 years ago in Boston. She was a great, unique lady with a rare inner strength and a ferocious love of life.

  22. Gloria Cole Sugarman

    I met Venora and Leroy though my late husband, Tracy, and have treasured our friendship ever since.. She was a truly unique, generous, wise and wonderful person who all of us went to for advice on everything from the smallest to the biggest issues. And she was always forthcoming and she was right. She was a proud addition to Westport who is missed by all who knew and loved her. Gloria Cole Sugarman (gloria.sugarman@gmail.com)

  23. I grew up one street over on Washington Ave. Venora and Leroy were good friends with my parents, often coming to the house for parties, to talk about gardening, etc. I last saw her in 2003 when she attended my wedding… and will now cherish her comments, and Leroy’s, on my wedding video. They were truly wonderful people.