Frigid temperatures and a wind-tossed mixture of freezing rain and snow did not prevent family, friends or former colleagues of late District fire and emergency medical services chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe from attending his “Celebration of Life” service at the DC Armory on Saturday, March 12.
“I was going to be here for Kenny,” said D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), who as mayor hired Ellerbe to be his fire and EMS chief in 2011. “He was always Kenny to me. Kenny, we want you to know that we love you. I gladly appointed Ellerbe as the chief.”
Ellerbe died Feb. 27. His brother, Kelton, who did not share the cause of Ellerbe’s death at the service, said, “he was a healthy individual” and “an angel came down from heaven while Kenny was taking a nap and told him this is your time.”
Ellerbe served as the fire and EMS chief in the Gray administration until he retired from government service in 2014. Overall, he had a 32-year career with the District’s fire and EMS department, even serving as the interim chief during the Williams administration for a few months. He also had a stint as the fire chief in Sarasota, Fla., from 2009 to 2011.
A District native, Ellerbe graduated from Coolidge High School and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of the District of Columbia.
Gray said his appointment of Ellerbe occurred because of both professional and personal reasons.
“I knew Kenny went down to Sarasota and when I became mayor, I said to him, ‘it’s time for you to come home,’” he said. “Kenny was one of the savviest, committed people that I knew. He was the quintessential fire fighter.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser offered condolences as the city’s elected leader.
“I am offering condolences to the Ellerbe family,” the mayor said. “I am offering condolences to all D.C. government employees and to those who were in the Gray administration and my own. Kenneth was a beloved brother, neighbor and boss. So many lives were changed by Chief Ellerbe.”
Bowser mentioned Khalid Naji-Allah, her chief photographer, as an example of someone Ellerbe touched. Naji-Allah, a former Washington Informer photographer, received national praise for his photograph of Black Lives Matter Plaza in downtown Washington. His photograph subsequently received a space at the National Gallery last year.
“Chief Ellerbe got Khalid hired at the fire department last year,” she said. “Ellerbe saw Khalid as someone who needed a second chance – someone who needed leadership.”
Nicolas Majette, the administrative judge for the Contract Appeals Board in the District, talked about his close friendship with Ellerbe and their shared love of water activities including scuba diving (Ellerbe) and snorkeling (Majette).
“Ken was a well-rounded individual who was respected by everyone,” Majette said.
D.C. fire and EMS Chief John A. Donnelly described Ellerbe as “a man of persistence” and Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Chief Tiffany E. Green credited Ellerbe for mentoring her.
“When I was selected as the fire chief in Prince George’s, he met me at a restaurant and we talked about my greatest challenges and opportunities,” Green said. “While he spoke, I took notes. I still have those notes. He knew the importance of mentoring and reaching back to help others.”
Additionally, D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III and University of the District of Columbia President Robert Mason sent letters of condolences to the family, read aloud during the service.
In his “Message of Hope” the Rev. Porter L. Lawson, Sr., of From the Heart Church Ministries said Ellerbe had a “high impact life.”
“To everything there is a season,” Lawson said. “There is a time to be born and a time to die. There is a time to plant and a time to pluck up. God has given us a season of time for his purpose and for the benefit of others. Kenneth was a servant. He has gone to a better place.”
The fire and EMS department managed the service with its members dressed in their formal uniforms. The pallbearers consisted of the department’s personnel. Members of the department stood side-by-side at attention in the snow as the casket left the Armory and pallbearers loaded it into the funeral limousine.
Ellerbe’s remains are at the Celebration of Life at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Md.