A Life Well-Lived
The hardest working woman in three counties died on Saturday surrounded by family in Summerfield, Florida. She was a force of nature, and a modern-day saint who loved unconditionally.
Perhaps Ellen Ruth (Coulter) Robards developed true grit as a result of being born in 1931 during the Great Depression. As a young child, she escaped the dust bowl of Kansas with her parents (Fanny and Steven Coulter) traveling to California to build a better life. On their way, the family found work where they could and even lived for a time in an abandoned silver mine. A start like that makes a person self-reliant, and hardworking. It also teaches that happiness does not come from money – it comes from being grateful for what you have and the love of family.
Eventually, the Coulter family stopped when they hit the Pacific Ocean, settling in San Diego. As a young girl, she wore her long blonde hair in braids and went to the beach with her friends for fun. This is also where she met a handsome Bill Robards in his white sailor’s uniform. They eloped shortly thereafter and she did not tell her parents about her marriage right away–a sign of her independent nature and her somewhat loose regard for following the rules.
Soon after that, came the children … six of them and most while Bill was out to sea. First came Bill, then Susan, Mike, Fran, Judy, and Janet – all during Bill’s service in the Navy. She moved her tribe between Naval bases in California, Virginia, Texas, and Japan. Bill Retired from the Navy while stationed in Washington State, and Ellen finally had a full-time husband. But make no mistake, Ellen was the matriarch and the chief of her tribe: She was the knot that held together a rope of many strings.
Ellen and Bill then road-tripped with their family from Washington to Summerfield in 1971 to live near Bill’s sister, Harriet. She and her husband, Joe Lott, trained horses on the farmlands of central Florida that is now The Villages. Ellen and Bill bought a small farm and she showed the world that she could grow more than just children. There was nothing that Ellen would not try, whether it be growing melons, becoming a beekeeper, tearing down barns by herself with just a crowbar, or raising all kinds of animals from cattle to horses, to pigs, to chickens, or rabbits. She was a Jill of all trades.
She liked being a farmer. She may not have made much money, but she never met a cow she did not like. She would start the morning by milking Betsy. To bring in extra money, she raised dairy calves that she bottle-fed every morning and every night. She not only raised her own animals, but she fed and cared for countless other animals who were lucky enough to find their way into the Robards family. She loved them all. And, the 50 lb. bags of feed in her car showed that. Well into her 80s, she could be seen loading those heavy bags of feed into the trunk of her Lincoln. No help necessary. Most days, you saw her driving her tractor with a bush hog on the back down a Highway because there was always mowing to be done even if it wasn’t on her own property.
Ellen was a quiet rule-breaker. The family sincerely apologizes to anyone run off the Belleview backroads by a flying lowriding Lincoln or a silver Grand Marque. She not only disregarded the speed limit, she also ignored basic safety measures. The backseat of whatever car she drove infamously doubled as a truck bed. At any given time, you could find six bags of feed, a yellow diesel can with duct tape over the nozzle, rusted barbed wire, a coffee can of bent, but “still-useful” nails, and at least two grandchildren. Because children were not allowed to ride up front (any longer), they rode in the backseat along with a calf or goat. Seatbelts be damned.
After being up early and working late, she would always welcome her role as babysitter for the many grandchildren and great-grandchildren that soon came along. Nana, as she became known, was always ready with a treat because she was also a world-class baker. Her angel food cake was closer to cotton candy made by actual angels than a baked good. Her from-scratch pies were made-to-order for each of her loved ones, or anyone in need of some homemade love. She would bake by feel and taste, not by recipes with rarely a measuring device in sight. Take that, Martha Stewart!
Ellen spoke little and kept her own counsel. When she did speak, she always said yes. She may not have wanted to be the center of attention, but she wanted to be at the table wherever that table may have been in this world because she was curious and willing to learn. She traveled with her children around the world, visiting more countries than most diplomats. Just two months before her passing in her 90s, she traveled with most of the family to the other side of the planet Earth for three weeks!
Her willingness to go anywhere and try anything meant that she not only held countless jobs in her life (from secretary to rural route postal carrier), but it also created a life rich with experience, skill, empathy, and wisdom. She was the first one to say “I’ll try that” or “It never hurts to ask.” She encouraged her children to do the same which inspired them to try new things — sometimes hard things. When they failed, she’d say “That’s alright. Learn something? Maybe, don’t do that again. What do you want to try next?” When they succeeded, she was also the first one they wanted to tell because she was always genuinely thrilled. Whether gaining an advanced degree with honors or getting a waitress position at Big John’s Burgers, it was bravery and effort that mattered to her, not prestige.
One of Nana’s favorite and well-known tricks was her “Irish Goodbye.” When Ellen was ready to go, she simply went. No need for discussion or fanfare. You would just turn around and suddenly she was gone, knowing that it is best to leave while you are still having fun. And now, she has done it again. But as always, she left us all with some important lessons about how to live this one precious life: Make your family your friends, love unconditionally, if something needs doing, just do it, be curious, be willing to try, and always say “yes.”