published Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

Cooper: He won't be easy to forget

Involved in his community, loved by friends and family, Bill Ensign touched lives in a meaningful way.

I was thrown together with the gray-haired man with the bright blue eyes early in 1986. We were cast in the 30-minute play "You Didn't Know My Father" for what was then Family and Children's Services of Chattanooga.

The play, which touched on the difficulty of end-of-life issues, was performed at area churches, schools and civic organizations. It had already been in production when I joined the cast.

But Bill Ensign, who died in Maryville, Tenn., earlier this week, was quick to assure me that, no matter how new I was, whatever ability I had as an actor was better than his. He was just doing this, he said, because they needed somebody, and he was willing.

Sincere and thorough in his role, his talent hardly matched his self-deprecation.

It wasn't long before I realized this man was the father of two high school classmates -- his daughter a year ahead of me and his son a year behind me. I had worked closely with daughter Lee on the high school yearbook staff, while my sister was a closer friend of son Bill.

Bill's wife, Elaine, we eventually remembered, had even driven me home from kindergarten a time or two after the interstate's construction had forced us to move from Missionary Ridge -- where we lived across the street from the school -- to a neighborhood some miles away.

In time, Elaine and I were cast together in the Family and Children's Services family violence play "Fairy Tale," where I was a vulgar-talking, abusive husband, and she was the nosy neighbor who overheard the fights with my wife.

Eventually, Family and Children's Services dropped "You Didn't Know My Father" from its rotation of plays. But the Ensigns continued to be friends, eventually incorporating into that friendship -- I was introduced to her at another FCS play venue -- and my son.

The volunteer drama effort for the couple was hardly the limit of their community involvement. Bill once served on the board of Chattanooga City College, a junior college which merged with the University of Chattanooga to form the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1969.

After Bill's retirement from the Tennessee Valley Authority, the couple consulted with several nonprofit agencies -- including Habitat for Humanity, Family and Children's Services and Venture 2000 -- on organization effectiveness.

They were also dedicated members at Northminster Presbyterian Church.

Bill, a certified Master Gardener, also passed along his passion for gardening by working with inner-city schools to establish flower and vegetable gardens.

Through our association with the Ensigns from the plays, we felt fortunate to be included in many New Year's Eve gatherings at their lake home in the 1990s. They had taken a small cabin with a beautiful view that they expanded and turned into a warm, comfortable retirement home. The Ensigns served soup at these affairs, and everybody else contributed some sort of leftover Christmas goody.

My wife and I were often the youngest people among couples closer to our parents' generation, but Bill and Elaine never saw age, color or social status among the people they befriended.

On a Facebook post earlier this week, his son said of his father -- who always seemed to have a twinkle in his eye and looked like he was up to something whenever you saw him: "He touched the lives of those around him in a deep and loving way and will live on in the thoughts and actions of those that knew him well."

The New Year's Eve events ended when the Ensigns moved to Maryville to be closer to some of their children, but we never pass Dec. 31 without thinking of this special man.

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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