Joliet ‘minister of music’ lifted lives
By Tony Graf firstname.lastname@example.org September 3, 2012 6:50PM
Tony Ray, of the Forest Park Community Center in Joliet, Monday, January 31, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 5, 2012 6:06AM
Tony Ray stood near the towering American flag at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. He had the flags of 50 great states behind him.
He lifted his voice and sang “God Bless the USA.” It was Memorial Day, it was time for inspiration, and Tony Ray was in his element.
Young people in the audience were familiar with the song, and their parents and grandparents knew the words as well. Everyone sang with Tony Ray. His voice brought the generations together, hundreds of people together, complete strangers together.
The song reached its final, climactic line. Ray backed off and let the crowd burst forth with emotion. His own powerful voice had brought them to this height, but one of Tony Ray’s greatest talents was bringing out the song in others.
Now that talent is more important than ever, for Tony Ray is gone.
“O sing unto the Lord a new song, For he hath done marvellous things.”
“O sing unto the Lord a new song,
For he hath done marvellous things.”
Ray died Aug. 24 at age 53. He had been having health problems, but was still very active. The Herald-News had reported that he had kidney problems and was on dialysis.
For two decades, Ray was a positive voice, the Ray of Sunshine, on Joliet radio station WJOL-AM (1340). For two decades, he was music director at Shiloh Baptist Church in Lockport.
For the last 12 years of his life, he served as minister of music in the church of his youth: All Nations Church of God in Christ, just a block east of the Des Plaines River in Joliet.
“I feel and believe that he loved the choir, he loved the church, he loved singing, he loved performing in an excellent way,” said Tempie Bates, a member of All Nations Church. “He was the kind of director who wanted to make sure every section in the choir had it right. And he was excitable, so he excited us.”
For the last three years of his life, Ray served as executive director of the Forest Park Community Center, 1017 Woodruff Road in Joliet. The center began with a mission to solve problems of gangs, drugs, alcohol abuse, violence and crime in the neighborhood. Through 17 years, with Ray’s guidance, the center has become a place of learning, recreation, physical fitness and social development, serving both youth and adults.
Ray was a force for change in the Forest Park neighborhood. And he was a tour-de-force on the stage throughout Joliet, emceeing, entertaining, raising money for charities at events such as the Kiwanis Show, the Easter Seals telethon and many others.
In 2004, Ray founded Gospel Fest, which he envisioned as a positive, first-class event for the black community. The most recent festival was this weekend at the Harvey Brooks Foundation in Joliet.
Ray was friendly, optimistic, comforting. He was spiritual. His radio voice could wake you up, calm you down, inspire you to make the most of your talents.
Memorial Day 2011, at Lincoln Cemetery in Elwood, was just one example. As master of ceremonies, Ray was at his emotional best, and he had the crowd soaring. You walked away with reinvigorated gratitude toward our troops. And because Ray made it look so easy, you walked away with the idea that he would always be around.
Nobody will always be around. The time to appreciate is now.
“Glory, glory, glory. Glory, hallelujah. Since I laid my burden down.”
Since I laid my burden down.”
Tony Ray endeavored to be a light on a hill that could not be hid.
WJOL, the Voice of Joliet, had its home on “Radio Hill,” in a building at 601 Walnut St. from 1942 to 2000.
The station now has offices on Caton Farm Road.
Ray worked on the old Radio Hill for 20 years, beginning in 1978. He started off working in sports, doing overnight shifts and hosting a soul music show. Ray graduated from Joliet East High School, attended Joliet Junior College from 1978 to 1980 and went on to graduate from the DeVry Institute of Technology.
Richard Fredrickson, another respected WJOL broadcaster, also began at the station in 1978. Fredrickson remembers the early years when Ray worked overnights. Fredrickson and Ray would meet in the hallway and have coffee together. The two men went on to work together in community fundraising.
“He really opened the door for me because I was new to the area. I didn’t know anyone in Joliet,” Fredrickson said.
Fredrickson eventually became president of what is now Lamb’s Fold Center for Women and Children.
“Tony would come out, and we did a talent show. And Tony, of course, orchestrated that,” he said.
“He was always someone whom I looked up to, always someone whom I respected,” Fredrickson said.
During his second decade at WJOL, Ray became the morning host. If the rising sun ever needed an introduction in Joliet, the emcee would have to be Tony Ray. He was right there, near the city’s far eastern edge — bright, optimistic and affirming — occasionally playing the inspirational song, always making the difficult look easy.
“He was so relaxed,” Fredrickson said. “Tony Ray — nothing seemed to faze him. There are a lot of things that people don’t realize go on in that morning show, that he took care of. Just one of the nicest men.”
Steve Brandy, news director at WJOL, began on the news team at the station in 1995, during Ray’s era as morning host.
“We just had the most fun times, on and off the air,” Brandy said. “He was a joker. He had a great sense of humor, but he was a man of purpose — came to work every day, so involved in the community.”
“The first day I was doing anything for the news team, I was interviewing U.S. Senate candidate Dick Durbin at Al’s Steak House. He was going to replace Paul Simon. Tony called Al’s Steak House — had them interrupt the press conference, called me to the phone — and asked me live, on the air, what the lunch special was. It was absolutely hilarious, and of course I brought him some food back when the press conference was over,” Brandy said.
In 1998, Ray left Joliet to become operations manager for three radio stations in Hammond, Ind. He returned to WJOL to host the afternoon show from 2005 to 2007.
After a time working elsewhere, Brandy himself made a return to WJOL in 2004. So by mid-decade, the two were working together again.
“It was like old times. It was like we’d never been apart,” Brandy said. “And he was loved by the listeners — that’s all you can say.”
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills From whence my help cometh. My help cometh from the Lord.”
From whence my help cometh.
My help cometh from the Lord.”
On Wednesday night, choirs from two churches came together to rehearse for a coming musical tribute to Tony Ray.
They sang gospel music. They sang old-school, and they sang a new song. The two biblical verses quoted above, and the one traditional song, are included in songs in the tribute.
Ray directed choirs at both churches during his life — Shiloh in Lockport and All Nations in Joliet.
Timothy R. Johnson, a music director at Shiloh, knew Ray for 31 years. He was under Ray’s tutelage and directorship for 20 years at Shiloh.
“He was a great mentor to me, because I was just freshly starting out being a director,” Johnson said. “As far as vocal singing and directing, he basically taught me what I know. He used to always take me around to different ministries — and other concerts and events, to let me see other directors — because I had a desire in my heart to be a director of music.”
“He really worked with me to help me to develop into the man of God who I am today,” Johnson said.
Tempie Bates has been a member of All Nations Church of God in Christ for 42 years. She has known Ray throughout that time, and has sung in the choir under Ray’s direction.
Growing up, Ray started out playing drums at All Nations Church, Bates said. Upon returning to the church, Ray led the department of music, including the musicians and the choirs, and any performances in the church or as part of its state organization. He sang, played the keyboard and taught music.
“He was a very, very wonderful mentor to young people in general,” Bates said.
Visitation for Tony Ray will be from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and 9 to 10 a.m. Wednesday at All Nations Church of God in Christ, 503 S. Water St. in Joliet.
The musical tribute will be at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at All Nations Church.
Funeral services will be 10 a.m. Wednesday at the church with Bishop Robert R. Sanders, presiding. Entombment will follow at Elmhurst Cemetery in Joliet.
“Every valley shall be exalted, And every mountain and hill shall be made low.”
And every mountain and hill shall be made low.”
Louise Ray, no relation to Tony, founded the Forest Park Community Center in 1994, at Woodruff Road and Luther Avenue. She was the center’s first executive director.
In 1987, Louise had lost one of her five sons to street violence in Joliet. Within two weeks, she said that as a Christian she already had forgiven the person who killed her son.
Also in those weeks, she formed the group Mothers Against Gangs. She did not want to see other mothers go through the grief of losing a son to violence.
“It’s time to get something done,” she told The Herald-News. “I think God is telling me to do something. I am not going to sit still and wait.”
The momentum from that movement led to what is now the Forest Park Community Center.
Tony Ray served as president of the board of the community center. He helped Louise continue the momentum and develop the center as an educational resource and a neighborhood asset.
Louise Ray died in 2009, and Tony Ray succeeded her in her leadership role. At that time, he noted that the community center was going strong and the neighborhood was much safer.
The Herald-News visited Tony at the center at Woodruff and Luther. When he reflected on Louise Ray’s life, he alluded to the above biblical verse, saying, “Your low places will be made high, and the weak will be made strong.”
This was his way of saying that God had made a way for Louise. Tony continued in Louise’s role until Bettye Gavin became executive director last month. Tony died only a few days later.
“I will sing praise to my God While I have my being.”
While I have my being.”
Fifty flags flew behind Tony Ray. From the Bear Republic of California to the desert sun of Arizona to the tall pine of Maine. Watching Ray sing at Lincoln Cemetery on Memorial Day, you began to see America the way Lincoln himself wanted it, all the states together in friendship, with each state glorious in its countrysides; its fathers and mothers in every hometown, giving the best they have.
Tony Ray wanted Joliet to be like that. He wanted Forest Park to be like that, with each human spirit glorious in its talents; young people together at Woodruff and Luther, who have banished drugs and violence forever; learning through sin and grace, hanging on in prayer, stepping forward to give the best they have.
Tony Ray left a song that lifted voices, a spirit that lifted 50 flags, an airwave that connected soul and soul.