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Timing changes everything

Local minister wanted to be a sports announcer but life had other plans

Correspondent photo / Sean Barron The Rev. James E. Ray, 90, of Poland, has led a colorful life between serving in the Army in Korea, attending Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and attending a theological seminary in Chicago to learn about campus ministry.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com or metro editor Marly Kosinski at mkosinski@tribtoday.com

POLAND — For the Rev. James E. Ray, all it took was a phone call, a letter or a single occurrence at the right time to change the trajectory of his life in several major ways.

“I wanted to be a sports announcer, that was my dream, so I majored in radio speech at Ohio State University,” remembered Ray, 90, who grew up in Columbus and moved several times throughout his childhood to different parts of the city as his father struggled to find steady work during the Great Depression. “I helped broadcast Ohio State basketball games with (legendary St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster) Jack Buck.”

After Buck became privy to Ray’s skills and asked him to help broadcast football games the following autumn, “I thought I died and went to heaven,” he said with laughter.

It was no laughing matter, however, when the 1948 Linden McKinley High School graduate received a letter from the U.S. government stating he was being drafted into the U.S. Army, which erased his chance to work in the press box with Buck. After being drafted, he underwent 16 weeks of basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, said Ray, who also was in the university’s ROTC program.

Nevertheless, a severe foot infection kept Ray in the hospital for a few months and from initially being shipped to Korea during the Korean War. When he later joined his fellow soldiers there, Ray was a squad leader and assigned to accompany South Korean soldiers to guard North Korean prisoners of war on a small island with three compounds that held a total of about 8,000 POWs.

The infection, though, was a blessing, because Ray was, by his own admission, a “terrible soldier” and likely would have been killed had he gone earlier, he said.

A language barrier, though, made it difficult for him to communicate with the South Korean guards and the POWs, some of whom were assigned to janitorial and other types of work details in one of the compounds that housed a gym, a library and a post exchange. As a result, nicknames were given, such as “Flash Gordon” for himself and “Oliver” for one of the POWs.

When the armistice was signed July 27, 1953, to end hostilities, Ray recalled “Oliver” gleefully announcing to him that “Oliver” was finally going home. That moment was deeply touching because it showed that the former POW appreciated that Ray had treated him with kindness and respect, he explained.

“It meant a lot to me regarding how to live your life and treat people who are different from you,” he said.

After returning to the U.S. on a ship to San Francisco and a train ride to a Chicago naval training station to be discharged, Ray got a job at Westinghouse Corp. near Columbus in a processing office, which allowed him to save money to return to Ohio State, where he now majored in speech.

His experiences in the war — which also included teaching rudimentary English to Korean soldiers and seeing 5- and 6-year-old children on the street begging — remained fresh in his mind. The memories of the poor children planted a seed for Ray to consider entering the ministry and performing mission work, he said.

Consequently, he entered McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, then spent about two years as an assistant minister at a church in Galesburg, Ill., while learning about the concept of campus ministry. Then one day, the phone rang.

“I got a phone call from a pastor (who had gotten another position) and he said, ‘Take my job,’ and I was hired” in January 1963 at the McKinley Foundation at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, he recalled.

Later, another call led to another life-altering occurrence for him, when a Presbyterian minister invited Ray to accompany him on a bus trip to the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

“I literally said, ‘What’s that?'” he said.

Ray’s boss received a lot of criticism for allowing him to go, perhaps because the critics assumed the famous march that drew about 250,000 would result in bedlam and violence. Instead, Ray found himself standing among a sea of hope-filled people and about 150 feet from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

“We heard about what we should be about, to be together, and how we should work on racism,” said Ray, adding he was greatly moved by the music, unity among black and white people and the fact that no violence or arrests occurred.

The longtime minister also pointed to the irony of having marched with King and sharing a nearly identical name with James Earl Ray, who was convicted of killing the civil rights leader. He died in prison in 1998.

After the march, Ray picked up the phone and was soon on the road again, this time to Hattiesburg, Miss., to participate in a 10-day march near the Forrest County Courthouse to help blacks register to vote. Beforehand, he had taken part in a peaceful demonstration with at least 50 faculty members outside of the University of Illinois’ chancellor’s home to protest the lack of blacks being hired, which resulted in the university changing its policy, Ray noted.

While in Hattiesburg, he joined 15 to 20 marchers and saw the many outside steps blacks wanting to register to vote had to climb to reach the registrar’s office. He also slept in a black-owned TV repair shop that the local NAACP chapter used as its headquarters.

Beginning in 1968, Ray, who also was on a National Campus Ministry Association committee, spent another year at McCormick Theological Seminary to work on his master’s degree and learned that seminarian faculty members, including campus ministers, had an annual meeting in Chicago. A few months after he had attended a session, a pastor from Pittsburgh that Ray had met at the meeting called to offer him a position because a staff member had been killed in a car accident.

After moving to Pittsburgh in September 1969, Ray began worshipping at the Community of Reconciliation, which brought together blacks and whites, and became campus minister at nearby Pitt University. He also got to know Fred Rogers, famously known for creating “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” and who also founded the Oakland Children’s Center in the city, said Ray, who lived there until 1983.

He continued such efforts after moving from Pittsburgh to the Mahoning Valley, where, after yet another call, he became director of campus ministries at Youngstown State University and formed the Racial Awareness Program to invite black and white students to work more closely together and interact with one another. He also made a concerted effort to connect with local black clergy members and continue his civil rights activities.

Part of that entailed attending Emancipation Proclamation worship services at 10 a.m. each Jan. 1 in Youngstown to celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s having signed the document Jan. 1, 1863, which freed many slaves.

After being given the Elizabeth Powell Heritage Award in January 2015, Ray invited those in the audience to participate in group sessions aimed at breaking down barriers between blacks and whites, which led to a series of dialogues on racism.

In recent years, he went on the yearly Sojourn to the Past traveling American history bus trip through key civil rights sites in the Deep South, and joined the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past organization.

Today, he’s working on a memoir to chronicle the many diverse chapters that make up his life. But ask Ray about ways to work for social justice and he might mention that you don’t have to be another Martin Luther King Jr.

“Sometimes the smallest thing can lead to God knows what,” he said.

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