With rare exceptions, journalists don’t make a significant impact in their community.
Longtime Daily World sports writer Ray Ryan, who died Monday at age 86, was one of those exceptions.
Ray not only wrote skillfully about Twin Harbors sports for nearly 50 years but also frequently took the extra step in his dealings with both the athletes that he covered and the church he served.
Soon after joining The Daily World in 1965, Ray founded the Grays Harbor Greyhounds, a summer youth track club that he transported around the age-group circuit in the Northwest and Canada.
Many of the Harbor’s top athletes participated and several recall the experience as one of the highlights of their youth. Hoquiam High School great Bill Linnenkohl made a point of relating precisely that sentiment when he was honored at last month’s Aberdeen-Hoquiam football game.
Although he sometimes came across as something of a curmudgeon on first impression, Ray was actually one of the most compassionate people I’ve known — a deeply religious man who had his priorities straight.
He once told Daily World writer Rob Burns in a 2001 profile that God, family and sports were the most important things in his life.
“Not necessarily in that order, mind you, but close,” he said.
That quote may have been uttered partly in jest, but Ray was someone who truly walked the walk when it came to commitment to his family and faith.
A single dad when he came to Grays Harbor, he was devoted to his five children. He was also a tireless volunteer at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Aberdeen.
He once skipped an Aberdeen-Hoquiam track meet in which his son Mick was participating to attend a Catholic retreat. Not only did Mick star in the meet, but his Aberdeen teammate Mark Pinckney also established a school high jump record that still stands. If Ray had any regrets about his absence, however, he never voiced them.
More notably, Ray used his faith to kick a smoking habit so pronounced that he literally set newsroom wastebaskets on fire. When flames ignited by his smoldering cigarette butts would leap from the containers, Ray would calmly stomp them out while usually muttering, “There’s another fire of undetermined origin.”
Yet Ray quit cold turkey in 1974 and never resumed the habit.
“I was touched by God,” he told Burns. “That’s the only way I can describe it.”
Even when religion wasn’t directly involved, Ray had the knack for making the right decision.
After being responsible for a minor fender-bender traffic accident a few years ago, he sold his car and took himself off the road — believing, with his diminished vision, that he was endangering himself and other motorists. Friends transported him to games and other events for the remainder of his life.
Although he never wrote professionally until he landed a Daily World reporter/sports writer’s job at the age of 37, Ray was the closest thing to a journalistic natural that you are likely to find.
But his vivid imagery and seemingly effortless style belied a painstaking perfectionism. He would frequently want to alter his copy even after the final editing process and often confessed that he was never entirely satisfied with anything he wrote.
As a wordsmith who insisted upon proper grammar (even following retirement, he would frequently call one of us to complain about some grammatical error in the newspaper), Ray might not have described himself as inimitable. He did, however, fit that description.
Ray was a writer to be admired rather than imitated. I could no more replicate his writing style than I could body-slam Shaquille O’Neal.
His approach to assignments could also be unorthodox.
When I joined The Daily World in the early 1970s, Ray would routinely cover an Aberdeen or Hoquiam football game in Vancouver or the Longview-Kelso area, return to the office to take some calls, head over to the Spar or Smoke Shop cafes on Heron Street to shoot the breeze with other patrons and then bat out his game story in wee hours of Saturday morning (we had a Saturday afternoon edition in those days).
“I can’t believe I did that, but I did,” he mused years later.
Despite his lack of journalism background, Ray was a master at writing on deadline — a skill he acquired by fire.
Few readers realized at the time that Ray had to dictate Aberdeen-Hoquiam Thanksgiving Day football game stories in the 1960s and ’70s while the game was still in progress, since we held the Thanksgiving edition until the contest was completed. He detested that type of deadline, but his stories still read as if they had been polished for hours.
Even well into his 70s, he was still adept at extemporaneous writing.
Although Ray loved football, basketball and baseball, there was little doubt that track and field was his favorite sport. We never discussed it at length in our conversations, but I always suspected that part of the reason was that high school track is a pure sport in which the fastest time and greatest height or distance always wins.
Nothing angered Ray more than to have the outcome on the field overturned by a technicality. He wrote numerous columns advising coaches and athletic directors to read the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association handbook to prevent incidents that might affect an athlete’s eligibility.
When a potential Montesano state championship girls relay team was disqualified at district — thus ending its season — for wearing non-matching uniforms (something to do with a stripe on their shorts), Ray was so incensed that I seriously questioned whether he was capable of completing the story. As it was, I don’t think he ever forgave the coach that reported the violation.
Ray never won a journalism award for the simple reason that he didn’t believe in such contests and never entered them. His columns, in my opinion, would have been a cinch for multiple awards.
He was, however, appreciative of the late-in-life honors he received from the Aberdeen High School Hall of Fame committee, Hoquiam’s Grizzly Alumni Association and the Polson Museum.
There’s one more distinction that is due. The 2014 Grays Harbor All-County Track Championship (a meet he helped revive and, during a period in which The Daily World co-sponsored it, had a role in organizing) should be dedicated to his memory.
The dedication could read something like this: To Ray Ryan, a great sportswriter and a better man. And someone who assuredly made a difference in the community he served.
Rick Anderson is The Daily World sports editor. He can be reached at (360) 537-3924 or via email at email@example.com