So the feeling that he has been living with me for the past couple of months is a very strange one indeed.
That is how long I have been working on the series of articles that will be running this month prior to what would have been his 100th birthday on Dec. 20.
Elliott was there in the discussions I had with people who knew him.
He was in the pages I pored over in his autobiography, as close as I could get to an interview with him.
He was in family photographs and 50-year-old newspaper articles, almost always smiling at a ribbon cutting of some sort.
I have walked through his house. I have held his Profile in Courage award. I have visited his grave.
I have become familiar with his style of handwriting and the way he liked to turn a phrase.
I have memorized all the important names, dates and statistics. Yet after two months of research, I am no closer to answering my main question than when I first began.
How does a man with Elliott’s intelligence and integrity end his life flat broke and forgotten by some, despised by others?
I must have missed something.
Surely rural voters did not accept the fruits of a man’s labor in Washington for 16 years and then toss him aside without thinking through the consequences.
His biggest crime could not possibly have been that he was the anti-George Wallace.
However, when Elliott returned to the spotlight in 1990 with the presentation of the Profile in Courage award, he was written about in national newspapers and magazines.
Reporters far better than I have had a chance to poke holes in the Elliott story, and they all uncovered the same basic facts.
Conservatives could accuse him of being a liberal. His creditors could accuse him of being a debtor.
No one, even himself, seemed to refute that he was stubborn.
The one label that has never stuck to the name of Elliott is hypocrite.
I don’t wish to portray Elliott as a saint or a simpleton. We have to see people as they are, flaws and all, if we are to learn anything from them.
The worst thing I can say about this man that I have only met secondhand is that he was an idealist.
He had too much faith in fallible human beings.
He gave up everything to offer the people an alternative to Wallace when Wallace was already giving most of them what they thought they wanted.
If Elliott were alive today, I would ask to sit down with him for a while.
We would begin with a discussion of his life, but I couldn’t resist getting his thoughts on the issues we face in the 21st century as well.
I am told that he was a people person, so it’s likely he would get me to share a few stories and opinions of my own.
He would probably tell me that I am too young to be as cynical as I feel at times.
He would persuade me that love is a more powerful force than hate, that even the most overwhelming darkness cannot snuff out the light of a single candle.
He would encourage me as I go through this life to do whatever it takes to have a clean conscience and not be ashamed of the account I give to God in the end.
The writers who resurrected Elliott’s tragic story in his lifetime might have hoped that their efforts would help bring about a happily ever after; it never came.
I have nothing to offer a man who has been gone for almost 15 years.
I am the beneficiary here, not the benefactor.
I consider it one of the joys of this job to occasionally dedicate myself to a project that finds me, whether through serendipity or fate, and leaves me changed.
My hope as those articles go to print is that if they affected me in such a way, then they will touch someone else’s life as well.
So for anyone else who needs to embrace a little idealism, I point you to the story of a man named Elliott.
Jennifer Cohron is the features writer at the Daily Mountain Eagle.