This year’s marshal for the Wilkes County Christmas Parade, which is Saturday, has been a leader in local organizations for decades, fought in the Korean War and was a principal for most of his 33-year career in the Wilkes schools.
Ward Eller, 91, also made a name for himself as a bluegrass and country musician. In 2008, the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky., recognized Eller and fellow members of the Wilkes-based Church Brothers band as bluegrass pioneers and awarded them life memberships in the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Eller and his wife, Kate Eller, plan to travel the parade route in a convertible with their son, Douglas Eller, and daughter, Karen Worley. The parade starts at 3 p.m. Saturday in North Wilkesboro and ends in Wilkesboro.
Eller was born and raised and still lives in the Mount Pleasant community. He cited the great impact of being well loved and cared for while growing up, despite being in a family with little material wealth. “I actually had three mothers (as a young child) — my grandmother, my Aunt Pearl and my mother.”
Eller added, “My senior year (at Mount Pleasant High School), my dad started talking to me about college. Nobody in my family had ever been to college.” Eller enrolled at Appalachian State Teachers College (now Appalachian State University) in Boone after graduating from high school in 1950.
He said his goals then were “to drive a decent car, live in a nice home and, of course, get a good wife.”
His college plans were interrupted when he was drafted into the Army in early 1951, less than a year after the U.S. entered the Korean War. Eller was on the front lines in Korea for four months and was awarded a Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman Badge, Korean Service Medal and other decorations. He was stationed for 16 months in Hokkaido, Japan, before being honorably discharged in February 1953.
Eller and his wife, the former Kate Foster, married the same year he was discharged. They were in high school together and began dating before Eller was drafted. Eller said his wife has been a great motivator and supporter in everything he has undertaken. They still live in the brick ranch home they built in 1963.
Kate Eller received a bachelor of arts (BA) degree from Appalachian and was a teacher at Mount Pleasant Elementary School for 34 years, mostly eighth grade.
Eller completed requirements for a BA degree from Appalachian after leaving the military. He later earned a master’s degree in administration from East Tennessee State University.
He joined Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1142 in North Wilkesboro in 1957. The post had over 600 members then, mostly World War II veterans. He has been post and district commander, post and national quartermaster and national aide-de-camp. Eller helped start the VFW Post 1142 Honor Guard in 1997. In 2001, he worked with the State Board of Education to secure high school diplomas for 14 WWII veterans in Wilkes who never received them due to their military service.
After spending his first year as a teacher at Millers Creek High School in 1957, Eller transferred to Mount Pleasant Elementary and was there when Wilkes School Superintendent C.B. Eller named him principal of Ferguson Elementary School in 1964.
“I was at the North Wilkesboro Speedway on a Friday afternoon watching the time trials (for a NASCAR race) when an announcement come out over the loud speaker for Ward Eller to call home. It scared the fire out of me,” said Eller, explaining that he thought something bad had happened.
He called and his wife said the superintendent wanted to meet with him. This was when he was offered and accepted the position of principal at Ferguson. C.B. Eller retired the next year and C. Wayne Bradburn became Wilkes school superintendent. Eller later was principal at Ronda-Clingman Elementary and then at Millers Creek Intermediate from 1980 until his retirement in 1990, while Marsh Lyall was superintendent.
He established a middle school program at Millers Creek while principal there. He was presented the Wachovia Principal of the Year Award for the Wilkes schools in 1989.
Eller was active in the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), serving as district president. He and his wife attended national meetings of the NCAE in California and Nevada. Both were active in the N.C. Retired School Personnel, with Kate serving as local and district president.
Eller said he met Zelotese Walsh, a leader in the Ferguson Ruritan Club (now inactive), after he became Ferguson Elementary principal. With Walsh’s encouragement, Eller started the Mount Pleasant Ruritan Club in 1964. The club frequently makes donations to Mount Pleasant Ellementary, funds scholarships, helps people in the community in need and supports other charitable efforts.
Eller said the Mount Pleasant club’s membership grew as a result of Ruritan National’s decision to allow women to join a few years ago. Kate Eller was already serving the club in a secretarial role. He said Mount Pleasant Ruritan also gained members after it started sponsoring Boy Scout Troop 325.
Eller helped establish the West Wilkes Medical Center (now West Wilkes Family Medicine) in the Mount Pleasant community in the 1980s. He served on its original board.
Kate Eller also was on the medical center board and for many years was a Sunday school teacher and clerk at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. She was district and local president of the VFW auxiliary. She also served on the Watts Retreat Committee, which successfully worked for removal of toxic medical waste from a burial site in Purlear.
Eller was a young child when he first saw a guitar. “I became interested because my Uncle Clay Eller, the owner, made such beautiful sounds on it.” Eller later learned that this song was ‘Wildwood Flower.’ ” He recalled walking a few miles to his Uncle Albert Church’s house to hear the Grand Ole Opry on a floor model Philco battery-operated radio.
Eller said Albert Church was a talented musician who inspired him and Church’s sons, Bill, Edwin and Ralph Church, to learn to play guitar, mandolin and other instruments. They formed a group and began playing wherever they were invited on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Drake Walsh soon joined Eller and the three Church brothers in a group called the Blue Ridge Ramblers. Walsh’s father, Dock Walsh, was an accomplished musician and recording star.
Eller said the first Church Brothers band was formed when Edwin and Bill Church rejoined the group after returning home from stints in the Army in World War II. “Others joining the group from time to time were Gar Bowers, Elmer Bowers, Johnny Nelson and Ralph Pennington. Our first radio show was on WILX radio station in North Wilkesboro. We also did many shows on WKBC,” said Eller.
The Church Brothers signed a five-year contract with Rich-R-Tone Record Co. in Johnson City, Tenn., in 1950, where the band’s first recording session was held. Stafford Record in North Wilkesboro, local distributor for Rich-R-Tone, became the band’s unofficial headquarters. Drusilla Adams of North Wilkesboro wrote many of the band’s songs.
Noah Adams bought the contract from Rich-R-Tone and formed his own company, Blue Ridge Records, in 1951. He was Drusilla Adams’ father.
Eller said many of the band’s recordings received significant radio air time in the region. His signature song was a solo, “You’re Still the Rose of My Heart,” released in 1952 on the Blue Ridge Records label.
The group dissolved after Nelson died in an auto accident, Eller was drafted and other band members got married.
Eller was presented the Wilkes Heritage Museum’s Dr. T.R. Bryan Wilkes Heritage Music Award in a Blue Ridge Museum Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2014. The museum has a display representing Eller and the Church brothers with records, magazines, Eller’s guitar and other items.
Eller was part of the longest continuous country music entertainment in the area, with shows every Saturday night at the VFW Hall in North Wilkesboro from the mid-1950s until just recently. Other musicians are continuing the shows.
Ward and Kate Eller’s daughter, Karen, and husband Ty Worley; and son, Douglas, and wife Alisa, live in Wilkes. They have three grandchildren, Kendall, and husband Travis Steelman, Brittany and husband Cory Bryson and T.J. Worley. They also have a great-granddaughter and great-grandson, Harper Steelman and Brody Steelman.