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Ellis Fowhand – A Centenarian Reflects on a Life Well Lived

By Pat Sabiston; Photo by Katie DeSantis

When community leaders were asked to give testimonials about Ellis Fowhand for a video tribute to his 100th Birthday, their statements were:

  • The epitome of a Southern Gentleman.”
  • “An honest man of integrity who has always served this community.”
  • “I’ve never seen a more productive 100-year- old-man.”
  • “An optimist and mentor to many.”

Ellis Fowhand was born on April 14, 1914 when Woodrow Wilson was President, the U.S. had just entered WWI, and Panama City was only five years old.

“My mother most influenced my life. She taught me the finer points of being a Southern gentleman . I was taught to stand when a lady came into the room. I said, ‘Yes’ and ‘No ma’am,’ and if Mama told me to do something, and I didn’t do it, she’d send me to the peach tree in the yard to pick the appropriate switch. Those limbs could really sting your legs, but she loved me very much. I was the youngest, only boy, and spoiled rotten, but it was my mother who taught me the importance of humility and common sense.” Fowhand’s parents, Wesley Dowling Fowhand and Lula Mae, had five children, two of whom died at childbirth or a few months later. Fowhand’s older sisters were Cora Fowhand Chavers and Reba Fowhand.

“My earliest memories in Panama City were of all the kids that used to play in the streets around Magnolia Avenue, which was nicknamed “Incubator Avenue” due to all the children who congregated there. My best friend was Bubber Nelson, and I used to ride his sister around on the back of my tricycle. We lived just two blocks from Bay High.”

Children along “Incubator Avenue”

Children along “Incubator Avenue”

Faith played an important part in Fowhand’s life. “At one point, my father was offered a job in Dothan, and we rented a house up there. I developed typhoid fever and my mother and Mrs . Whiddon, my good friend Kent Hall’s grandmother, had the doctor make a house call . He told my mother he couldn’t do anything else for me, and I was going to die before the sun rose. The two women prayed all through the night, and the next morning I got on my tricycle and started riding out in the yard. It was something truly extraordinary . Kent Hall and I have remained friends to this day.”

They remained such good friends that Ellis Fowhand even encouraged his best friend to get into the furniture business, and they remained friendly competitors over the years. (Kent Hall owned Imperial Furniture Store .) Fowhand never created an “us against them” atmosphere among his employees towards any competitor.

Fowhand’s father taught him about business and sales, but it was his mother who encouraged his entrepreneurial spirit. “My first job was selling parched peanuts my mother had prepared . I was only about six years old and used Savelle’s Barbershop as my headquarters. Of course I don’t remember it, but later Mr . Savelle told me the story of a man who gave me a nickel for peanuts and then handed the peanuts back to me. Evidently, I told him I didn’t want the peanuts back because they were too hard to sell in the first place!

My father was a partner in Chavers-Fowhand Furniture Company where I started working when I was about seven years old. My parents felt it would keep me out of mischief, and I continued to work there until I got out of high school in 1931. I got into the furniture business, loved it, and opened my own store in 1952.”

Fowhand's Furniture - business prior to opening in 1952

Fowhand’s Furniture – business prior to opening in 1952

When Fowhand was asked about the most significant event in his life, he was quick to reflect on memories of Phoebe Masker Fowhand.

“I believe my wife would be the most important. Phoebe and I courted for three years and stayed married for 71-and a-half years. She worked beside me in the furniture business until she had our first son. When our second boy was born, it took us two weeks to try and determine a name for the child, because we were so sure we were having a girl,” said Fowhand laughing. “We had two boys, Philip and Clark, so she had her hands full.”

But there were other noteworthy occasions for Fowhand during his life.

“When they wanted to pave Harrison Avenue, it caused a huge community dispute because they wanted to cut down two old trees. Many people were trying to block the destruction of these ancient oaks, but one night some people bored holes in the trees and poured in salt, which was a death sentence for sure . About the time the trees came down, a watering trough was dismantled as well. The streets were sand back then, and all us kids would run across the hot sand and put our feet in the water trough to cool off and get relief from the finest crop of sandspurs ever grown,” said Fowhand grinning.

“Most everyone remembers when Clark Gable visited, and he even dated a couple of local girls. That caused quite a stir.

“During WWII, I was a Block Warden and at night walked from my house on Massalina Drive to Fifth Street. If I could see light shining through drapes, I would knock on the door, identify myself, and tell them to block the light. There were subs right out at the Pass. Some of the enemy soldiers got out and got on shore, then returned to their boats . I never saw them, but there were stories from the beach and south of us.”

Fowhand was also one of many distinguished men who helped start the Port of Panama City.

“Once the Liberty vessels left the port after the war, there was deep water there, which we were able to take over from the Federal Government. We knew our paper mill would need to have the port because previously, boats would have to wait to come ashore when the tide had risen enough; otherwise, they could go aground on a sand bar.”

When Fowhand saw the need for another political party, he started one!

“At that time in our history, there were no Republicans in the South, only Democrats . Some people were threatening to start a third party locally, and I felt like it was wrong to have a third party, so Dayton Logue helped me, and we recruited volunteers and raised money, $20 at a time, to back candidates .”

When asked what Fowhand liked most about the furniture business, he responded immediately.

“Anything you feel you know a lot about, I think it’s something you like. I’ve been in this business all my adult life, and yet I find I still have a lot to learn, which is why I continue to come to work. When you have something you like, why not perfect it as best you can?”

Fowhand’s work ethic is legend, and he learned it early in life.

“My father used to get us into the habit of getting ready to work, even when we were little. We’d always rise at 4-4:30 a .m ., and I still do to this day . He taught me the value of a dollar and how to make money. He also taught me that you learn everything about a business from the bottom up, and you do everything, to include cleaning toilets! And customer service was paramount .

“I had a goal in life for the business . I wanted to be as good as I could be . I didn’t covet anyone or anything and worked hard for the things I wanted in life . Sometimes, when you are trying to make a success out of something you’ll fail, but only temporarily . After mistakes, the time spent correcting them is well worth the effort . And, hard work was, and still is, key.”

But surely Fowhand found time just to goof off, right?

“I went hunting early one morning with the Segler boys to shoot doves on their farm in Bayou George. One particular day, no doves were flying so we went to school . Along the way, I saw a skunk and decided to shoot it and take it to my biology teacher. At around 10 a.m., while I was in class, the principal sent word that I was to take the skunk away from school. At Bay High, I became president of the 9th grade class, who were called ‘rats’ by the way, because such notoriety made me a leader in that group of kids.

“But I used to play golf and at age 82, I shot my age. Then, someone told me if you shoot over 85, you’re neglecting your golf . Under 85? You’re neglecting your business, so I quit.” But not before Fowhand was awarded plaques at the FSU/Panama City Campus Foundation’s Golf Tournament for “The Longest Drive Over 80 Years Young” in both 1997 and 2000. “And fishing was fun, but I really enjoyed hunting turkey. Once I shot two turkeys with one shot, but it was an accident, I promise!” He grinned, because, now, that is illegal.

“When my wife was alive, we loved to go dancing at the St . Andrews Bay Yacht Club . Our favorite song at the end of the night was ‘Melody of Love’ by Frank Sinatra.

Ellis Fowhand and his beloved wife, Phoebe.

Ellis Fowhand and his beloved wife, Phoebe.

When Fowhand was asked about his longevity, his humor, once again, infused the conversation. “I had to get over ‘Fool’s Hill’— when you get past 25 years of age—because before that, I got a lot of excellent advice I didn’t take. Some people ask me, ‘How do you feel being 100?’ I say, ‘I don’t know! I’ve never been 100 before! I just keep coming to work every day.”

When asked if there was something people didn’t know, he thought a moment and responded, “My mother always wanted me to come home between 10 and 11 at night. There were two trees in the yard that I named ‘10’ and ‘11’. Then, when she asked me what time I got in, I could honestly say, ‘Between 10 and 11,’” he laughed.

But what most people will find interesting is that Fowhand founded the Econfina Environmental Club, a “melting pot” of men from all over the country, with a very positive reputation for its welcoming, social environment .

“There was a man from Tupelo, Mississippi, Tommy Thompson, who owned the Chrysler/Plymouth dealership in Panama City . He suggested we have a party one night at my place in Econfina. We’d invite people we’d like to have up there, and to start we had Woody Smith of Smith’s Funeral Home, John Christo of Bay Bank, Bruce Collins, who was the Clerk of Court, and Charles Isler, Sr., a local attorney. After our first party, Woody Smith and Henry Vickery said, ‘You know, this is the nicest thing you and Tommy have done. Why don’t we do this every month?’ That was more than 50 years ago, and it’s still going strong from just a handful of men. We have bylaws and there are rules about no public speaking . We’ve had Florida Supreme Court Justices, governors, dignitaries, and none made a speech, but they were certainly tickled to be recognized.”

Gentlemen talk about this event from all over the country, and especially within the military. This is a place where “gentlemen gather”, which brings us full circle to the beginning of this article and to the reputation Ellis Fowhand has of being not only the consummate Southern gentleman, but also a very social person who has created a sort of “harmony” in his life by loving his work and his family, being deeply involved in the community, enjoying the company of friends as well as strangers, and being a man of faith. In 1952when he opened his store, it was blessed by Rev . Richard Scoggins, and Fowhand has felt blessed his entire life.

“I have had a really good life, with nothing to complain about. I had really good friends as well as teachers and mentors.”

And Bay County has been blessed to have him!

Ellis Fowhand’s family stands witness to his Legacy:

“I had the greatest dad and mentor. I remember when I first started working with my dad, he said, ‘The harder you work, son, the luckier you’ll be.’ That is so very true. Thank you, Dad. I’ll always remember what you taught me.” — Philip Fowhand, Son

“Dad, you have instilled in me to be fair and stand by my word. Thank you for being the best father anyone could ever have.” — Clark Fowhand, Son

“When I think of one word that describes my grandfather, it is LOVE. Ellis Fowhand has not only been the patriarch of our family, but to many others in the community as well. He is a man who tirelessly spends his life being true to himself, his family, and friends, as well as to the needs of his community. I celebrate his achievements that have influenced my life and the lives of many people. He continues to have a sharp mind, ready wit, and abundant wisdom. His passion for life, love, and work has been instilled into my life. He has been a mentor and inspiration to me. I am very blessed to call him my grandfather.” — Lisa Fowhand Johnson, Granddaughter

“Granddad taught me the value of having a good work ethic and to always look for ways to give back to the community.” — Dr. Wesley Johnson, Great Grandson

“You could say Ellis Fowhand is ‘in my head.’ I consider myself a hard worker, a gentleman, open minded, and willing to accept change. Granddad has played such a significant part in those aspects of my life, as he continues to live these traits with the integrity and authenticity that I can only aspire to achieve. Ellis Fowhand has set the bar quite high for our family, and I will always be grateful for having such a loving grandfather-in-law who cared enough to share his wisdom, knowledge, stories, curiosity, humor, and most of all his passion for his family, business, friends, and community. Unlike most his age, Ellis is not afraid of change. In fact, he thinks it’s wonderful! He likes to see change and growth, and he’s been integral in the growth and change that Bay County has enjoyed.

“It has been said that a rich man is not defined by his wealth, or money, but by his friends. Over the years, I have personally witnessed the many friendships Granddad has had with so many people, so I can say this without hesitation—Ellis Fowhand is blessed with a lot of friends who truly love him.” — James Johnson, Grandson-in-Law

Ellis Fowhand’s impact on Bay County:

» Jury Commissioner for Bay County » President/Board Member: Panama City Progress Corporation and Board Member of United Way. » Board Member: Bay County Chamber of Commerce » Chairman: Committee of 100 » President: Community Chest » President/Member: Elks and Kiwanis Clubs » First Vice President of the Bay County Chamber’s Military Affairs Committee » President: Bay County Library Association (during the planning and construction of the building that was located at the Downtown Marina.) » Served: » Four years: Gulf Coast Community College’s Advisory Board » Seven years: Panama City Port Authority. » The Fireman’s Pension Board for Panama City, Sunday School Superintendent, Deacon, and Elder at Wallace Memorial Presbyterian Church » Director: First National Bank as well as Southeast Bank. » Member: Bay County Sportsman Club; Panama City Country Club, and St. Andrews Bay Yacht Club. » Fowhand is a Mason, Royal Arch, and a member of the Knights Templar and Shriner’s Club. » Founding member: Econfina Environmental Club. » Inducted into the Bay County Junior Achievement Business Hall-of-Fame in 2011

About The Author

Pat Sabiston is the owner of The Write Place, a marketing communications consulting company, so Pat’s daily routine is writing. Pat has been a book reviewer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as well as smaller newspapers . Her most recent essay was published on NPR/ Online as part of the “This I Believe” project. She has finished her first novel and is writing two non-fiction titles, as well as a children’s book, which is in the concept stages.

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