Willie Ellis was known for peddling jewelry, clothing, toys, and other items by the lake. Credit: Shirley Nakao

Willie Ellis was the unofficial mayor and greeter of Lake Merritt. He addressed every passerby with a high-pitched “Good morning, Mama” or “Hey there, young man.” Willie knew all the regulars who frequented the lake and many were lucky to befriend him. 

Willie passed away on June 22 of complications from brain trauma he suffered years earlier. He was 69.

Willie Ellis was born Robert Bailey in Maplesville, Alabama, a town of around 700 people, on May 24, 1953. His family describes him as carefree and a hustler. He left Alabama around the age of 20 and made his way across the states until he found his home in Oakland and changed his name to Willie Ellis. Willie always wanted a Christmas birthday so he also changed when he celebrated it to December 24. 

These are just a few of the many stories we have come to learn about Willie over the years and since his passing, demonstrating the wonderful character those of us who frequented the lake quickly grew to love.

Willie first made Lake Merritt his home more than 20 years ago. He most recently lived under the I-580 overpass between Grand and Lakeshore avenues. 

During his early years at the lake, Willie would set up a “store” and peddle clothing, toys, electronics, and other wares near E. 18th Street and Lakeshore. He was often on his bike and would shout out his greeting to you as he rode by, over the music blasting from his boombox. Over time, he slowly moved further north up Lakeshore until he made the pergola area his mainstay for over 10 years. 

Willie would show up daily around 6:30 a.m., laying out his blanket and meticulously selecting items for the day’s sale. So many of us passed by, responded to his greeting, and checked out what he had for sale that day. Some of us donated items. Some of us bought things. Some of us really got to know him and spend quality time with him.

On July 21, 2016, Willie was brutally attacked in the early morning hours by a group of men who robbed him. His assailants beat him so severely that he later said he went to heaven twice. Missing for weeks, his friends at Lake Merritt assumed he had died. A memorial was erected and the community mourned the loss of his kind soul. 

Approximately six weeks later, a reporter discovered that Willie was alive and being treated at a rehab center. A long road lay ahead to recover from his injuries. Yet, Willie was determined to return to Lake Merritt, and through his love for life, he was able to get strong enough to come back. No longer able to ride a bike, Willie rolled his suitcase to the pergola every morning and set up shop. Still suffering from damage to his brain and body, Willie had good days and rough days. Sometimes he would shake uncontrollably, his head throbbing and his speech slurred, and yet none of this stopped him from being the brightest light at Lake Merritt. 

Willie Ellis relaxes by the lake. Credit: Richard Bell

On May 31, Willie did not show up at the lake. This was not unusual; he might miss a day or two to get treatment from Highland Hospital for his ongoing issues resulting from the attack. But after two weeks, several signs were posted asking if anyone had seen him. Friends were able to track him down at Highland, where he had been admitted after he was found unconscious on a sidewalk. Willie eventually succumbed to his ongoing brain trauma. 

He was fortunate enough to have several friends with him at the hospital in his last few days of life. His remaining family in Alabama was able to see him via Zoom and hear about how much his community adored him. 

A memorial for Willie Ellis is scheduled for Sunday, July 24 at 10:00am at the Lake Merritt pergola. A memorial bench and renaming of the pergola to Willie Ellis Plaza are a few plans that Willie’s friends are trying to accomplish to honor him and keep his spirit forever alive at Lake Merritt.

Anna Gunn was a friend to Willie Ellis for over 15 years. The two shared the same space at Lake Merritt early in the mornings with Anna exercising and Willie setting up his shop. Anna would bring him hot oatmeal or chicken soup daily and the two always looked out for each other.

Editor’s Note: Countless remarkable lives are lived in Oakland. At The Oaklandside, you’ll start to see more obituaries like this one, written by community members to honor their loved ones. Soon, we’ll make it easy for readers to get in touch with us about sharing a remembrance. Hats off to our sister site Berkeleyside, which has provided this valuable service in Berkeley for 10 years.