Former Delaware Secretary of Labor's father, Ellis "Water Boy" Stafford, was a man who knew hard work.
Despite his living more than 87 years in their midst, when Ellis Stafford died some people didn’t recognize the man whose life was told in the newspaper obituary.
It was only when the obit mentioned his nickname, “Water Boy,” that everyone knew the man whose life it described.
Stafford gained that nickname as a young man as he spent 10 years carrying buckets of water up and down railroad lines in his native Arkansas. Stafford rose from an orphan living a life of abject poverty to one of material success and a loving family.
Ellis Stafford’s life and the inspiration it provided is the subject of a just-published biography, “Ellis ‘Water Boy’ Stafford: An American Dream Fulfilled,” authored by his son, former Delaware Secretary of Labor Harold E. Stafford.
“I’ve always been interested in telling my dad’s story,” Harold said.
Beginning in 2006, three years before his father’s passing, Harold would visit his folks in their Arkansas home at least three times a year to record his father’s recollections about his life.
“Dad’s memory was excellent,” Harold recalled. “All of the information I got was from just talking to him, getting dates, places and times.”
When necessary, Harold checked with an aunt and uncle to verify details or to fill in missing pieces of information.
Ellis and his siblings were orphaned when he was 12 years old, prompting him to leave school to support the family. The sixth-grade education he received served him well, as he never went back to school.
His first job, earning 75 cents an hour, was hauling sawdust in a wheelbarrow. In 1941, Stafford was hired by the Missouri Pacific railroad as a laborer, but instead ended up working as a cook for one of the railway’s senior administrators.
This assignment violated company policy and after 12 years Stafford was reassigned, again as a laborer. He ended up carrying a pair of two-gallon buckets of water for the next decade, helping to quench the thirsts of the 50 or 60 men laboring in the heat of an Arkansas summer.
Laid off in 1950, Stafford worked as horse groomer and scrap iron dealer before returning to the railroad. There, his hard work and reputation led to jobs of increasing responsibility, culminating as a supervising foreman before his retirement in 1982.
Along the way, Stafford married Beatrice Bragg. Their first home, four acres of land and a leaky house, was purchased for $175. Beatrice brought in additional income as a domestic worker, but continued her education while raising their children. She eventually earned a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education and worked as a teacher for more than 30 years.
Stafford coped with the restrictions of being a black man in the Deep South over much of his lifetime. Even fun family outings were dampened by the ever-present Jim Crow, forcing him to use the back door of the local Dairy Queen because the staff would not serve a black man in the front of the store.
“He’d be so dejected when he came back,” Harold recalled. “He was embarrassed but he’d always say there’s a brighter day ahead.”
Stafford, however, didn’t become involved in the civil rights movement of the 60s.
“I’m not saying he never felt bitter or that he wasn’t happy about the condition under which he and other blacks lived at the time,” Harold said. “His concern was to make the best of a bad situation.”
Stafford always encouraged his children to better themselves through education.
“It was always very strongly enforced in the family that education was the key to equal opportunity in America,” Harold said. “And we always were told you can’t expect to be given anything in this world, you have to go out and make it happen.”
Harold said it was important that he write the book about his father.
“First off, I wanted the Stafford family to know about him,” he said. “I learned a lot of things that they didn’t know, I felt an obligation to tell the story.
“Also, I see my dad as an unsung, unseen hero,” Harold added. “I wanted to chronicle his life so that our family, our friends and our community and maybe the world would know what a great man he was, and what you could accomplish, even with a sixth-grade education.”
Harold’s book is subtitled “An American Dream Fulfilled.”
“My dad not only had this dream about his own life and what he wanted to accomplish, but he did it against some very big odds,” Harold said. “He wanted to make sure his family had a quality of life that was better than his had been.”
And although some may think the nickname “Water boy” to be derogatory, his father never considered that, Harold said.
“He wore that name proudly,” he said. “He was proud he had that job with the railroad, it was a way out of poverty.”
Harold highly recommends others taking the time to sit down with their elders and learn from them.
“After having written this book about my dad and his experiences, when I see older people I have such a renewed appreciation for them,” he said. “You never can tell what they’ve done, or what their lives have been like.”
A signed copy of Harold’s book, “Ellis ‘Water Boy’ Stafford: An American Dream Fulfilled,” is available directly from him by calling 697-0622; unsigned copies may be ordered through amazon.com. The cost is $12.95.