Class abounds when it comes to Ellen Rodriguez. She spent 31 years in one as a public school teacher and it’s a word virtually everyone uses to describe her.
Ellen was born in the tiny town of Woodville, Georgia, in the house her mother’s grandfather built when he returned from the Civil War. Her father had a steady but modest job managing the lumber mill and her mother raised chickens, kept a garden, and cared for the home and family. The family also raised pigs and beef cows for sale and processing.
“We were always secure and happy,” she says. “I have such good memories of building a playhouse under the scuppernong arbor. When my brother came along I was just thrilled. I loved him right away and I just thought it was wonderful to have a little brother.”
Ellen attended elementary school at the same school her parents graduated from, then went to high school in Union Point, where she met her future husband, Charles Cheves. After visiting her close-knit hometown, Charles joked that he knew he’d better treat her right because “everyone in town is kin to you in some way.”
After high school, Ellen attended what was then West Georgia College and graduated with a three-year teaching certificate. Eventually, she went on to earn her bachelor’s from the University of Georgia and her master’s from Georgia State. In the fall of 1957, she started her first job as a fourth-grade teacher at Central Elementary in Fulton County.
“Perhaps the greatest gift of my life was my parents providing for me to go to college,” she says. “A lot of families didn’t do that back then and I really wanted to become a teacher. My seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Lena Mae Moody had always shared her stories of travelling around the country and the world and it made an impact on us. That’s a big part of why I wanted to become a teacher. I wanted to affect children positively like she did me.”
Ellen married Charles in 1958 and the pair had two sons, John and David, but Charles died in a motorcycle accident in 1965, leaving Ellen a widow with two young children.
“I was very grateful to have my profession then,” she says. “I’d always loved it, but I knew then I’d never give it up.”
For three years, she raised her two sons on her own with the help of family, friends, and church family, then she met and married Santos Rodriguez. But she kept right on teaching. She taught for a total of 31 years, 20 of it them Mount Olive Elementary in East Point. During the last six years of her career she taught Chapter One reading and math.
“I loved teaching,” she says. “Back then, you had a lot more flexibility, so you could really mold your teaching around the children’s interests. If a child found something interesting on the way to school, you could focus your lessons on whatever it was. We’d go to the library and do research, study it, talk about it. It was a wonderful way to learn – and more natural, I think.”
Even after she finally retired from public school teaching in 1990, Ellen served as a children’s Sunday school teacher and guided both children’s church and the Wednesday Night Kid’s Club at Fayette Presbyterian Church. She also worked as a residential property appraiser for 12 years. Currently, she serves on the church’s visiting committee for shut-ins and as the co-chair of the Mission/Columbia Friendship Committee of Fayette Presbyterian Women.
In 2016, when Santos was ailing, the couple moved to Azalea Estates in Fayetteville. Though Santos passed on just a few weeks later, Ellen decided to remain. She’s built friendships and a life she loves and, in 2017, she was named Queen of Azalea Estates.
“Ellen is an inspiration for a lot of people at Azalea Estates,” mentioned an employee watching the photo shoot. “Sometimes, when I’m in a tough spot, I ask myself ‘what would Ms. Ellen do?’ And then that’s what I try to do. She has such class and style.”
Ellen loves crafting, particularly sewing crafts like counted cross-stitch, embroidery, crewel, and quilting, and enjoys playing cards and board games as well as reading. Travel is still a favorite pastime and she especially loves the beach. She says her sons, John and David, are great guys who grew up to be fine men who are thoughtful, Kind and loving to their mother. She says that the greatest lesson she’s learned in life is to be kind and recalls how her friend and longtime neighbor Vivian Russell would often call Ellen up on a cold winter afternoon to say that, if Ellen had not already planner her dinner, Vivian had something wonderful like a pot of beef stew and cornbread to share.
“Of course,” Ellen laughs, “I always told her I’d not started dinner yet!”
“Just be kind to people,” she continues. “It’s amazing how much your own children and the children you come in contact with – all the people you come in contact with really, but especially children – remember years later. With children, you think they weren’t listening, but they were. Or you did some small thing you’ve forgotten all about, but it’s a good memory for them. I attended a funeral recently for a former neighbor. He wasn’t quite 60 but his kids were grown, of course, and they remembered that I always gave them juice and cookies. You never know what tiny acts of kindness may have a big impact on other people.”
Her long-time friend Nettie Wilson, who used to teach with Ellen and whom Santos called Ellen’s “partner in crime,” says having a positive impact is just what Ellen does.
“Patient, kind, talented, caring. That’s Ellen,” she says. “She’d give you the shirt off her back and she’s a wonderful friend. And she’s a lady of class, if you know what I mean. You don’t see that very often anymore. She’s one in a million.”
Ellen’s brother, Ken Windsor, points out that she’s modest, too.
“Did she tell you that she was the 4H state champ in baking cherry pies?” he asks. “And that, when she went to Chicago she came in second in the nation? She didn’t, did she? She wouldn’t. But I like telling people because I know how hard she worked. I know how many cherry pies she baked – from scratch! The thing about Ellen is that, no matter what group she’s a part of – family, church, civic, school – she’s an asset and she brings no negativity to the table. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about her and I have no negative memories about her in our entire history. I know that sounds utopian, but it’s true. She’s just a wonderful person. No one could have a better sister. I mean that. I’m very proud of her.”
HER LIFE ADVICE:
“Take care of yourself. In all ways: physically and emotionally. Women sometimes wear themselves down taking care of others, but they need to learn to care for themselves too. And the most important thing for couples is respect. Respect your differences and each other’s opinions. Respect other people, period. When you respect others, you learn to respect yourself.”