Home Nike items Oakland bids farewell to ‘Mayor of Lake Merritt’

Oakland bids farewell to ‘Mayor of Lake Merritt’

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At 6:30 a.m. every morning, Willie Ellis had his blanket neatly laid out in front of the Lake Merritt pergola to sell hats, sunglasses, shoes, and other random items. As people passed, Ellis, in his high-pitched voice, greeted each person with “Hey mom!” or “Hey young man!”

Over the past 20 years, homeless Ellis has become a beloved lakeside salesman. He befriended people from all walks of life – including elected officials – who collectively dubbed him the “greeter” or “mayor” of the region.

“He was so welcoming to everyone who passed by,” said Anna Gunn, who met Ellis 15 years ago while teaching fitness classes by the lake. “He would greet you whether you knew him or not.”

Now, in front of the pergola where Ellis used to sit, is a makeshift memorial with flowers, coffee mugs and greeting cards. Ellis, real name Robert Bailey, died last month at Highland Hospital, two and a half weeks after he was found unconscious on a sidewalk near MacArthur Boulevard and Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland.

His death was confirmed by his nephew and niece-in-law, James and Shameika Bailey of Alabama. He was 69 years old.

Over the past 20 years, Willie Ellis has become a beloved vendor in Lake Merritt. He was known as the “greeter” or the “mayor” of the region. He died on June 22.

Provided by Shirley Nakao

A public gathering celebrating Ellis’ life is to be held at the pergola on Sunday. Gunn, who secured the rights to Ellis’s remains, has raised more than $10,000 for the memorial and plans to seek city approval to place a bench or granite plaque on the pergola memorializing Ellis in perpetuity. . Any remaining funds, she said, would be donated to an organization that helps the homeless or any city effort to keep the pergola area clean.

Ellis was born on May 24, 1953 in Clanton, Alabama, a small town located between Birmingham and Montgomery. He had two brothers and three sisters. Ellis moved to California in the 1980s.

Ellis kept in touch with his older sister, Laura Bailey, 82, calling her every Sunday, but they never saw each other in person, said James Bailey, Ellis’ nephew.

Bailey was a teenager when Ellis left Alabama. He doesn’t remember much about him, but he does remember that he was always a “ladies’ man”, a “scammer”, and a “well-dressed”. He said Willis had been in and out of jail for minor offenses.

Bailey and his wife, Shameika, said they were both happy to hear that many people in Oakland loved and cared about him.

Over the past 20 years, Willie Ellis has become a beloved vendor in Lake Merritt.  He was known as the

Over the past 20 years, Willie Ellis has become a beloved vendor in Lake Merritt. He was known as the “greeter” or the “mayor” of the region. He died on June 22.

Provided by Shirley Nakao

“It made us want to see him (in person),” James Bailey said.

In Oakland, Willis moved and slept in different areas near the lake, including local hospitals and rehabilitation centers. About 10 years ago, he routinely slept outside the Alameda County Administration Building at the south end of the lake, according to Keith Carson, chairman of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and a friend of Willis.

“He just had a personality that drew everyone to him,” Carson said. He and his wife, Maria, met Ellis 15 years ago and donated items to sell to Willis.

“Willie reflected someone who unfortunately fell on hard times but he didn’t let that control his will to be self-reliant,” he said.

Many have described Willis as a quiet, kind, enterprising, and always well-dressed man. He was usually seen sporting a baseball cap, Nike sneakers and Golden State Warriors apparel. His birthday was May 24, but he used to tell people he was born on December 24, said Gunn, the friend who organized the memorial on Sunday. Why he wanted a Christmas birthday or why he had a nickname different from his birth name remained a mystery.

A makeshift memorial with flowers, coffee mugs and greeting cards sits between two benches in front of the Lake Merritt pergola where Willie Ellis used to set up his shop.

A makeshift memorial with flowers, coffee mugs and greeting cards sits between two benches in front of the Lake Merritt pergola where Willie Ellis used to set up his shop.

Jessica Flores / The Chronicle

“He always wanted a Christmas birthday, so I would bring him a birthday card (Christmas Eve) and a cake and have my (fitness) class sing for his birthday,” Gunn said.

Ellis made headlines in 2016 when he disappeared and false rumors spread that he had died. A reporter later discovered he was recovering in a hospital after two men brutally attacked him, stealing his belongings.

While recovering, Ellis’ friend Richard Bell took him to the lake to see his friends monthly. Dozens of people showed up to hug and talk to him. After the attack, Willis’ health declined and he had difficulty speaking.

“He meant a lot to a lot of people,” Bell said, his voice cracking, adding that Willis remembered little details about the people he would meet. “He saw something in everyone.”

Despite the 2016 attack and his living conditions, Joey Ojeda described Ellis as a “fighter” who had a strong spirit.

“He was an angel,” said Ojeda, a friend of Ellis’s for 20 years.

“And we were like his medicine. He fed on our energy.

Jessica Flores (her) is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @jessmflores