BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Hailey Swann said Layton River Ellison had never met a stranger. To him, everyone was a friend.
Ellison, who was only 19, was one of two linemen that died Tuesday morning while working to restore power to communities in west Jefferson County.
Hailey Swann was Ellison’s girlfriend of two years. She’d met him for the first time in third grade.
“He asked me to be his girlfriend then,” Swann said, with a smile evident in her voice. “I turned him down.”
Years later, in high school, Swann moved back to her hometown and granted Ellison’s third-grade wish. The two began dating.
Swann and Ellison would do everything together, from eating dinners at one of Layton’s favorite restaurants — LongHorn Steakhouse — to having fun at Boggs and Boulders, an off-road adventure park in Andalusia.
Now, Swann said she’s heartbroken.
Nicole Brown knows the feeling. For years, Brown has served as a mother-figure for Ellison, who was raised by his grandmother, Trudy, who he called “Granna.” Now, the man Brown said “is my boy,” is gone.
Brown met Ellison for the first time when he was only 3 years old.
“He was chunky — big old cheeks — just chunky. Everything was chunky,” she said of Ellison as a young child. “He was the biggest cuddler. He was always such a sweet boy.”
She remembered little moments of his childhood that now mean so much.
“We were out here one night laying in the driveway,” she said. “It was a meteor shower, and he was out here with us. We were counting as the stars were falling.”
Brown said she remembered that the first movie Layton ever went to see was “Cars.”
“He’s still got his little Cars table and chair set,” she said. “His foot wouldn’t even fit in the chair now.”
Brown recalled how Ellison’s younger sister, Madison Wagoner, had come up with a special name for Granna’s husband, who had a long white beard.
“She said he looked like Santa Claus, so she called him Ho,” Brown said. The nickname stuck.
She said when Ellison was in kindergarten, the silly nickname evolved into an even funnier story.
One day Ellison’s class was discussing their families and telling each other their mom and dads’ names.
“I don’t have a mom and dad,” Brown recalls Ellison telling the class, to the teacher’s surprise. “I have a Granna and a Ho.”
Brown said that Ellison’s father, Daniel, had him in cleats and pads by age 4, a place Ellison loved to be.
As he grew up, Layton Ellison embraced sports wholeheartedly.
“If he wasn’t on the baseball field, he was on the football field,” Brown said. “If he wasn’t on the football field, he was on the basketball court.”
One cold night when his team was playing Guntersville, Ellison’s confidence had warmed him up.
“He got up to the plate and kissed his bat,” Brown remembered. “I thought, ‘I really hope this works out for him, because he’s being really cocky right now.'”
Ellison smacked the ball and got a double.
Brown would wait outside the locker room after every one of Ellison’s games.
“He would tuck me under his armpit — that sweaty nasty gross armpit — but I waited on my hugs after every game,” she said. “And I’d get them — between the sweat and stink and all that cologne he put on.”
Ellison was a “classic country boy” and enjoyed all the things that came with it.
“We would spend hours upon hours riding the four wheelers, muddy, or in the Jeep, with the top off,” Brown recalled. “It was mudholes and trucks and loud music.”
As a teenager, Ellison had a little mischief in him, too.
One night on a trip the family took to the beach at 30A, Brown hid the car keys so the kids wouldn’t leave without permission. When she woke up later in the night, she found that even that wouldn’t stop the fun. Ellison and his friends were gone, and so were the bicycles that had been in the back yard.
Sometimes, though, even as an independent teenager, Ellison would have to ask for help.
Ellison’s dad had given him a black Jeep that, unfortunately for him, didn’t have four-wheel drive. One day, he got the Jeep stuck in the mud and had to call Brown to come get him out.
“Ain’t nothing like having to call your mama to get you unstuck,” Brown would later joke with him. He’d tell her to shut up.
“I never let him live that down, though” Brown said. “Never would.”
In the end, Ellison’s family and friends remember that he always wanted to help — to be there for those that he loved.
When his great-grandmother Celestine Durham died, Granna was devastated. Ellison, as always, stepped up to the plate.
“He never left her side,” Brown said. “He was such a pillar of strength. He held her up physically and figuratively.”
Now, in the days following Ellison’s death, his family is having to rely on each other for that strength.
They’ve been able to laugh, cry, and “pitch some fits.”
But they’ve also, in all of that, been waiting, they say, on Layton River Ellison to come walking back through their door.
A Celebration of Life for Ellison will be held on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at 11:00 a.m. at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. His burial will follow in Forestlawn Gardens.