At one time in her life, Ellie Randell was forbidden to walk on the side of the street that passes in front of the place where she now works. That admonition came from her mother.
For the past 12 years, Elton Randell has been greeting and serving tourists at Alexandria's Ramsay House Visitors Center, 221 King St. This year she was named Tourist Promotion Organization Employee of the Year at the 2002 Virginia Governor's Conference on Tourism and Travel.
In making the nomination, Nance Mazzola, Visitors Center manager, said, "Like most visitor centers, Ramsay House is open to the public 362 days a year. During the past 12 years, Ellie has been available to work every holiday or special event scheduled in the city. Ellie has been known to take the bus to work even in snowstorms when few other people were out."
That's all very admirable, but why is it unusual? For one reason, Ellie Randell is 82 years young. She is also a walking, talking archive of Alexandria history. When a tourist hears it from Ellie, it's not just textbook.
Ellie is one of five children. She had two sisters, plus a stepsister and a stepbrother. They all grew up in Alexandria. One of their first homes was a row house, located at what is now Market Square, facing Fairfax Street.
"My mother and my two sisters worked at the Torpedo Factory when it was a real factory. But mother would not let my sisters or myself walk on the same side of the street as the Ramsay House. At that time it was a bordello upstairs with a bar on the ground floor," Randell explained.
"Mother was afraid that foreign sailors from the boats delivering paper, who visited the Ramsay House, might kidnap us. After I started working here for city, when they handled tourism, Dr. Jenkins used to kid me about being a regular at Ramsay House," she said with a grin.
ELLIE WAS THE ONLY one in the family who did not go to work at the Torpedo Factory. Instead, she went to work for the U.S. Navy in January 1942. "It was the commander I worked for that gave me the name Ellie. He said he just couldn't handle a woman with the name Elton," Randell said.
Ellie started at the Navy Department as a clerk for $30 per week. "I thought I was rich making that kind of money. Throughout the war we worked shift work, 8 to 4, 4 to 12, and 12 to 8. I was with the department for 10 years," she said.
Eventually she was promoted to the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics and was cleared for Top Secret. She was responsible for construction bids, contracts and spare-parts inventory. "To this day, whenever we get rid of anything here, I still refer to it as going into the burn box," Randell laughed.
Her father died in 1927, when Ellie was only 7, leaving her mother to raise the three girls. At that time they lived in the 300 block of Washington Street but moved to the row house on Fairfax Street shortly after her father's death.
"We lived upstairs because mother had an Oyster Restaurant on the first floor. It only had a couple of tables. It was the house right next to the Police Department in those days," she explained.
IN 1950 HER MOTHER opened another restaurant at 102 N. Fayette St. "It was called ‘The Hideaway,’ but everyone referred to it as ‘Miss Jenny's.’ It had the longest bar and shuffleboard in the city," Ellie recalled. "She had a manager run it because mother still worked for the government. She was with Armed Forces Security in the District by then. But she visited the restaurant every day after work."
Randell comes by her longevity naturally. "Mother operated that restaurant until she was well into her 70s," Randell stated. " She died when she was 89."
Eventually the whole family, including her uncle, who worked for the city, and her cousins moved into 505 S. Lee St, then known as the “Burke Home” and now the Alexandria home of Gov. Mark Warner.
"Everyone was working to help pay the rent of $35 a month. Everyone had to work no matter how little the pay. There was no welfare. The city would only help with some coal for heat in the winter," Randell noted.
Ellie didn't marry until she was 29. "I was considered an old woman for getting married that late," she confided. "But I was a late bloomer." She had her first child, a daughter, in 1951. Ellie left the Navy Department in 1952 "to take time off to raise a family." She subsequently had a son and another daughter. They all now reside in Florida.
"When my son was 4 years old, I divorced my husband because he was spending all our money on the ponies. So I let him go with the ponies," she said.
One daughter is a special-education teacher, the other is in the medical field, and her son is a landscaper. She also has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
When she returned to work, it was for the city at the School Board. On weekends she served as a docent at Gadsby's Tavern for 23 years and also as a substitute aide.
Gretchen Bulova, director, Gadsby's Tavern Museum, thinks, "Ellie is a super lady. I have always enjoyed talks with her. She really knows Old Town. When she was here, the tourists always loved her tours because she knows a lot of facts and puts real enthusiasm into her talks."
IN 1988 SHE finally retired, if you can call it that. Two years later she started as a volunteer at the Ramsay House, which was then operated by the city. Six years later Alexandria tourism became the responsibility of the Alexandria Convention and Visitor Association (ACVA), and Ellie has been a stalwart for them ever since.
"Her love and knowledge of Alexandria are truly an asset to our visitors center. She's a wonderful ambassador for Alexandria, and we are thrilled to see Ellie recognized for her dedication," Jo Anne Mitchell, ACVA president and CEO, said.
That dedication and organizational skill is also appreciated by her co-workers. "She is a pleasure to work with and a virtual fountain of knowledge," Michael T. "Mike" Carter, another Visitor Center staffer, attested.
In addition to meeting and talking with tourists at The Ramsay House, Ellie maintains her own file of hard-to-find or out-of-print booklets and brochures. "She ably uses this material to not only better serve our guests but also to assist her co-workers," Mazzola said.
She added, "Ellie regularly sweeps the porch and steps, raises the flag and sets about making things right for visitors. One specific duty she has diligently performed over the years is overseeing the supply of vast numbers of publications we offer to our guests. This is a very large job, indeed."
Randell spends up to three days a week at Ramsay House depending on the need. In 12 years she has never missed a working day.
"I still have my two sisters and a stepbrother living in the area, but they're all in Fairfax County," Randell explained. "My stepbrother keeps saying he's coming over to help me at the house, but we're all so old we can't help each other."
SHE CONFIDED THAT she still cuts her own grass at her home on Bellefonte Avenue in Del Ray. "I usually take the bus to and from work. We now have two buses, but they run only five minutes apart. So if you miss one, you'll probably miss the other. It lets me off at King and Washington streets, and I walk to the Visitors Center," she said.
It is that tenacity and dedication that was recognized on April 30 in Portsmouth, Va. And she was there to receive it personally. No stand-ins for Ellie Randell.