Ellen Watson, described as “an institution in Kilgore,” passed away at age 99 on Saturday, Sept. 8. 2018.
Only a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday, Ellen played an indispensable role in the development of Kilgore, its organizations, schools and public services throughout her life.
Born in New Braunfels on October 12, 1918, she was the only child of Otto and Erna Rhode. She graduated New Braunfels High School in 1936 and Texas State College for Women in 1940.
She taught school in Leverett’s Chapel and Overton until 1942 and married Randolph Clark Watson on October 27, 1942.
“She met Dad, he was registering for the draft and she was in a school registering the people. She registered him for the draft when he came through the line,” said Joe Watson, Ellen’s son. “They met and they started dating and because he was being drafted and going into basic training, they eloped.”
Joe said Ellen wore a black dress to her wedding because it was the best one she owned and Randolph, one of seven children, borrowed a wedding ring from one of his brothers for the ceremony and borrowed a car from another brother so the couple could honeymoon in Longview.
Together, they moved to Kilgore and built a home on Boone Street. In Kilgore, Ellen became a member of the First Christian Church in 1945, where she would be a member for more than 70 years. She taught Sunday School and began teaching at Kilgore Public Schools in 1953.
After the war, Randolph returned to Kilgore and found a job at Kilgore College in the Technical-Vocational department. He worked his way up the ladder to become president of the college and Ellen “was the first lady of the campus,” Joe said.
She never seemed to tire and was always busy and bursting with energy.
“She lived her life giving. If anyone was sick, she was cooking for them, taking them potato soup,” Joe said, remarking that any money Ellen got, she would spend on others. “She did not miss a birthday. Any friend or anyone who was sick, they got a card.”
In addition to sending get-well cards, Ellen devoted time to helping heal the sick by volunteering at the hospital and East Texas Treatment Center.
She was involved in countless projects in Kilgore. If a new development was underway, there was a good chance she was taking part in it in some way.
When she saw the town lacked a nice hotel, she helped organized women in town to donate money to fund the construction of the Kilgore Community Inn.
“If she would have run for mayor, she would have won in a landslide,” Joe said.
Ellen was as well-known for her homemade hot sauce, jellies, delicious German cookies and goodie baskets as she was for community activities. She was known for dressing up as Mrs. Santa Claus at Merritt Tool in the holiday season and could be seen nearly every day in her garden, where she knew precisely which plants would thrive in the East Texas climate.
One of her most outstanding achievements was the time she spent as the “Story Lady.”
For 18 years, Ellen read stories to children throughout the state of Texas to instill in them a love of literature.
“She would sit on the floor at the library, literally, on a stool and all the children would be around her. She would read stories and children’s books and act them out, not just read them. Her point was to encourage children to read books. She did that here, in Leverett’s Chapel, Sabine, Tyler and Longview. They actually made records of her reading and the word got around. The state of Texas flew her in the late ‘40s to Midland, Odessa, Dallas, and she would do story hours in their libraries as the ‘Story Lady of Texas,’” Joe said with a smile.
Ellen’s influence and hard work was obvious to her friends and family but some may not know how she played a hand in making Kilgore what is today.
She played a direct role in creating the Texas Shakespeare Festival, the only professional theater in East Texas and one of the most well-known events in the area.
Raymond Caldwell, founder of the festival and longtime teacher at Kilgore schools and KC, attributes nearly all of his success to Ellen’s help.
“First of all, she is the reason I am here,” Caldwell said. “She is the one who, along with her son, persuaded her husband to hire me when I was teaching at the high school and bring me to Kilgore College.”
For over three decades, TSF has drawn guests and actors from around the world every summer season and Caldwell says none of it would have been possible without Ellen.
“From the beginning of the festival, starting in 1986, she was actively involved. She attended shows, invited me to do many programs for civic and social clubs, served as the unofficial spokesperson for TSF, spreading the word of the festival. She was a very active force but she never accepted her office because she was so busy with so many other things,” Caldwell said.
In addition to volunteering for TSF, Ellen made financial contributions to help the festival thrive and grow for over 30 years. Her lifelong love of theater was evident, from her teaching drama classes in high school to supporting the festival. Her son Joe, who has made a career in live theater, agrees his mother was a major influence.
“Ever since I met her in 1966 or so, she has been an avid supporter of live theater and was a constant inspiration and advocate of everything I did,” Caldwell said. “Everything I’ve done I owe her to her, really. She is such an institution in Kilgore. Every office and every honor you can think of, she has been granted at one time or another. That absence will certainly leave a hole. She was just a unique woman with a strong personality and with strong ideas and she was not afraid to voice them. Not much got by her.”
Caldwell said he keeps a picture of Ellen, taken at her 99th birthday party, in his office. She signed it “for your scrapbook,” an example of the sense of humor she shared when giving cards and mementos to friends and loved ones.
In her later years, Ellen didn’t slow down.
She continued to volunteer and donate her time and finances to Kilgore and its people, while still finding time to visit the beauty shop three times a week and always look her best.
To her son, she was “my best friend.” To the world, she was “a force of nature.” Many in Kilgore called her “Mother.”
Joe thinks his mother was proud of the long legacy and work and charity she has left in the community.
“Absolutely,” he said. “She didn’t do it for recognition. She didn’t do it for the accolades. She wanted to make things better. She wanted to help and be involved. That’s the main thing, she wanted to be involved and she wanted her opinion heard.”
Ellen Watson will be buried at Lakewood Memorial Park Henderson, Texas. Memorial contributions may be made to the First Christian Church, 609 East Main Street, Kilgore or to the East Texas Treatment Center, 1200 Dudley Road, Kilgore.
(See full obituary on page 4).