Turning 100, Mesa native feels blessed The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Turning 100, Mesa native feels blessed

Turning 100, Mesa native feels blessed

Tribune Executive Editor

When as many as 400 relatives gather next weekend in Utah to celebrate Oakley Ray’s birthday, they won’t just be honoring someone who turns 100 tomorrow, July 27.

They’ll be celebrating a legacy that the Mesa man and his extended family created in the East Valley and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ray’s childhood dates back to a long-gone time in Mesa when orange trees and farms outnumbered people and neighborhoods, where he and his five siblings rode horses on dirt roads and where the core of family values comprised daily family dinners and weekly Sunday church.

He and his two sisters, Myrle Ray Hatch, 88, and Maxine Steiner, 94, still marvel at the transformation they’ve seen in Mesa, as Steiner put it, “from a close-knit community to an enormous city.”

Their maternal grandfathers, John Oakley and Edmond Ellsworth, were personal friends of Joseph Smith, the First Prophet and founder of the Mormon Church, Ellsworth married the oldest daughter of Brigham Young, who succeeded Smith as the church’s Second Prophet and founded Salt Lake City.

Some of the region’s thoroughfares – Ray Road and Ellsworth Road – were named after their ancestors, who included James Wilford Ray, an early settler in Chandler.

All three siblings and their three other brothers were raised by Nellie Ellsworth, a nurse, and Sims Flood Ray – a farmer who briefly moved the family from their 40-acre farm on Stapley Road during the Great Depression to Wickenburg, where he found more profitable work helping to build highways between Phoenix and Prescott.

They credit their faith for their longevity as much as a healthy upbringing and lifestyle that included lots of sports and wholesome food – and didn’t include tobacco, alcohol or drugs.

“My life has been patterned after the church’s teachings,” said Ray, who held numerous LDS leadership positions and served as a missionary on five stints to England, Nigeria and three states.

He and his sisters all left a legacy at Mesa High School, where Ray was president of the Class of 1938. Each year he organizes a reunion for the dwindling number of his 154 fellow graduates.

The second oldest of his family, Ray was a popular kid and basketball star who, as a sophomore, helped power the school team to a state championship.

His introduction to the game came when his father in 1931 had moved the family for three years to Wickenburg – a move “that turned out to be a great blessing for me as I learned to play basketball.”

Ray said that by the time his parents returned to Mesa in 1934, he had no trouble making the Franklin Elementary basketball team as an eighth grader before he went on to Mesa High.

A few years after that, Steiner became a cheerleader at Mesa High while Myrle took up baton twirling for the Mesa Rabbettes, lettering in volleyball and then playing across Arizona in the Girls Athletic Association.

The three siblings still remain avid sports fans.

Ray likes baseball, though among his fondest memories is standing as a teen in front of a barbershop on Macdonald in downtown Mesa on June 8, 1933, listening to Max Baer defeat Max Schmeling, Hitler’s favorite, on the way to the world’s heavyweight boxing crown later that month.

“You can always find me at the football field, baseball field and basketball courts on a Friday night,” Steiner said. “It has always meant the world to me to support my kids and grandkids through the years. You can be sure to find me cheering in the stands.”

They have a lot of family to root for.

Steiner has seven kids and 37 grandkids. Hatch, whose husband Larry taught social studies and history at Mesa High, has three.

Ray and his late wife of 70 years, Janet, raised 10 children. He has 88 grandchildren, 317 great grandchildren and four great great grandchildren.

Ray’s prowess on the basketball court helped earn a scholarship to Arizona State Teachers College – the predecessor of Arizona State University – though his education was interrupted in 1940, when the church sent him on his first mission to the central part of the country.

When he returned home in 1942, he wanted to sign up for officer training school in the Navy but “the Navy was not ready for me so I was put on inactive duty for one year and went back to playing basketball at A.S.T.C.”

He eventually entered naval officers training in Flagstaff and then to Harvard University for additional training.

Though he jokes about being “the battle of Flagstaff,” Ray served his country during World War II far away from northern Arizona.

Ray had become engaged in 1943 but had put off his wedding for about a year so he could complete his officer training. In 1944, he took Janet with him to Newport, Rhode Island, where his ship, the USS Estes, was being built.

Eventually, Janet returned to Mesa and Ray, in charge of payroll for the crew aboard the Estes, sailed to Hawaii and then the Philippines before ending just off the shores of Iwo Jima.

The ship was designated the communications ship from which Admiral William H.P. “Spike” Blandy could oversee the landing at Iwo Jima.

“Blandly liked to push our ship close to the Island so he could see through his field glasses what was going on,” Ray recalled.

“I had some field glasses and enjoyed doing the same thing. We saw the men go up the side of a small mountain and put our flag up on Iwo Jima. Little did we know at that time that a memorable picture was being taken.”

Okinawa was the next stop for the Estes, which became a target of a Japanese fighter plane that got within 200 yards of the ship before it was shot down.

“The pilot knew the admiral was aboard our ship but he didn’t know there was a priesthood boy on the ship that needed to live and have a family,” joked Ray to explain his good fortune in dodging a bomb.

Discharged in 1946, Ray became a certified public accountant three years later. He then got a law degree from the University of Arizona before deciding in 1954 that building homes in post-war America was his future.

He started Ray Quality Homes, whose “A House for Your Lot” sign still hangs at 3200 E. Main St., building house across Arizona and Southern California.

Retired since 1987, Ray, as well as his sisters, miss being able to get around much and visit their huge extended family because of the pandemic.

They have largely stayed home to be safe the last few months, relying on their children to bring groceries and other necessities.

With the same mischievous and sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor that colors some of his recollection of the years gone by, Ray said he spends part of his time indoors “remembering the passwords on my computer” and “doing my own taxes.”

Asked about his upcoming birthday party, he joked, “A live viewing is being planned for 400-plus members of my immediate family instead of an open casket at my funeral.”

He stressed that not all the 400 or more guests will be gathering at the same time and will space out their visits to wish him a happy birthday over three days so that they can observe social distancing.

As for his secret to longevity, he said, “I absolutely do not know.”

Then he wisecracked, “I’m trying to find a way out but I can’t go.” ′

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