Debbie Moore is the “unofficial history detective” of Bradley County. She tracks history down with her husband, Ron. Each Saturday, from 10 a.m. until noon, they broadcast a history show called “Old Town Cleveland” on 99.9 WOOP radio. They’ve been doing the show for more than a year now.
Recently, the Moores did a show on old-time drag racing in the Cleveland area. “The phones went crazy,” Mrs. Moore recalled. Moore’s passion and excitement about the lives of others is contagious. Not too long ago, she explained, a serendipitous series of events led her to unite another Cleveland woman with a deep and meaningful memory from her past.
When dealing with history, context and sequence — along with writing things down — helps accuracy. The linkage of the past with the present, this time, began with Clyde “Pee Dab” Mathews, who’s a local antique dealer who has a booth at Antique Parlor on Grove Avenue and another at Relics on Candies Creek Lane.
As an antique collector and seller, whose nickname is from the peewee marbles of the past, Mathews travels to antique auctions throughout this area and out-of-state. “I’m a fanatic about old stuff,” he said. “That’s history. It’s amazing what you can find.”
On one particular day, while looking for what he could find, Mathews ran across the abandoned contents of a storage unit. He bought the contents, which had been stored in a cardboard box.
Discerning that something of value and interest might be inside, Mathews contacted WOOP radio, who contacted Moore about five letters Mathews had found in the box. Moore excitedly began looking for clues about these pieces of the past.
As she searched through the box, she found letters, one dated 1942, from a World War II soldier, Charles Lee Ellis Jr. Apparently, Ellis was a war buddy of James Robert Ingram.
In a letter dated July 17, 1942, on Jefferson Barracks Missouri letterhead, Ingram wrote the Ellis family: “Went on the rifle range yesterday and shot ten times. You should see those bull’s eyes. I tickled h— out of the sergeant by telling him he would have to change my target after each shot otherwise it would look like I only shot once.”
“I’ve missed all you folks very much and think you are grand people to know. I’m hoping to see you again after the war 1943 ... Give my regards to all,” Ingram added. “And don’t forget that the stars and stripes will fly over Tokyo when Flight No. 2 gets there.”
Once the radio station contacted Moore she began perusing the material and saw it was not “just dumped in a box,” but that had been carefully preserved, providentially, she believes, for reasons she didn’t understand at the time.
Genealogy, as Moore explained it, is fun but involves time-consuming detail work and correspondence. She Googled, visited Ancestry.com and wrote a personal e-mail before eventually locating Nikki Zurek, who is the granddaughter of Charles Lee Ellis Jr., whom Ingram had written. Zurek, who resides in California, posted Moore: “How EXCITING! My grandfather did survive the war. He died from early-onset [Alzheimer’s] when I was 16. My mother and aunt both live in the Ellis family home in Kingston, Ga. They would love to have the letters. Also, they would know more about ‘Gran-Charlie’s’ stories than I. Who were the letters written to? Are we related?” (Moore learned that Charles Lee Ellis Jr. was the son of Dr. Charles Lee Ellis Sr. (a physician during World War I) and his wife, Leila Lou Annis Bryan).
Ellis Jr. was a bomber pilot during the war and “they took out a bunch of oil fields,” which was important to the war effort then. In the box, there were still magazine photos Ellis had cut out of sites he had bombed. He took pride in defending his country.
In a note to his parents dated July 25, 1944, from Italy, Ellis Jr. wrote in capital letters: I MADE IT!!! And didn’t get a scratch.”
Pointing out the speed of e-mail contrasted with the time letters took decades ago, Moore remarked, “Can you imagine waiting on that letter?”
“This is a fabulous collection,” Moore said. “This box found me.”
Moore’s interest in history began with her mother’s simple observations about people. “My mom would always say, ‘There’s so and so and she’s related to so and so.’ I guess it came about from my mother’s interest in genealogy.”
The significance of people who take such interest is not lost on Moore. “I’m glad Pee Dab took the time to wonder where [those letters] came from,” she commented.
“I thought people were losing interest in history,” she said, “but the more I do the radio show, the more I see interest ... people just don’t know what to do about it.”
One thing people can do,” Moore emphasized, is to always write names on the backs of photographs. “You know who grandma is, but the next person may not.”
As it turned out, Moore learned that a family photo in the box, purchased by Mathews in McKaysville, Ga., featured Dr. Charles Ellis Sr. and his wife, Leila Lou Annis Bryan Ellis, and their son Charles Jr., who had written some of the war letters. To do her job, Moore noted, “it helps to be really nosy.”
The cardboard container held a range of emotions. “There’s happiness in these notes,” Moore said as she carefully handled each one. One note said, “Let me know the minute the baby’s born.”
“Then,” Moore added, “I found a sympathy note where the baby had died. It’s a family’s history right here.”
There were also Christmas cards of all colors and styles. One featured a red house with a rooftop covered with snow, surrounded by glistening snowdrifts. The words to an old English carol were on one side of the card with Christmas wishes on the other. The card was signed, “The Jolly Family.”
The veteran’s ROTC diploma from the University of Georgia was tattered but in one piece.
Besides her naturally inquisitive nature, Moore believes God was involved in helping her find the owners of this “treasure chest.” When she got the items without knowing where they belonged, she prayed, “OK, Lord. I’ll find these people.”
Besides the granddaughter, Moore found a Cleveland woman, Nancy Price, who has a connection to Ingram, the Ellis friend. As Moore went by faith, things seemed to fall in place.
Moore learned that Price had been reared by Ingram and his wife, Viola. Price now works in the Regions Bank building, in downtown Cleveland, for Morgan Keegan and Co. Inc. Investments.
“James Ingram is the uncle who raised me,” Price said, her eyes almost misty, her voice thick with feeling. “He was my daddy.”
Noting that she instantly recognized her uncle’s handwriting, Price commented: “This is wonderful. I was just thinking yesterday ... of anybody I could name, Uncle Robert and Aunt Viola — that’s who I miss the most. My uncle loved God and his family and he loved his country. He never, ever forgot his country and serving his Lord ... this is a Christmas miracle.”
Mathews, almost choking up at the sharing of the memories, added, “It makes my Christmas. This means more to me than a gift.”
Moore plans to deliver the memories that matter to the granddaughter from California, who just happened to be visiting Georgia this Christmas. Over the ocean, over the years, through the joys and sorrows of family, the meaning of one life has found its way home.