Ray Oliver '40: "One of the finest we've ever had at McDonogh"

Humble but iconic teacher-coach Ray Oliver '40 received a fitting tribute on Saturday, March 3, as hundreds returned to campus to honor Ray's memory.

View the video of the service

At the request of Ray's daughter and son, former headmaster Bill Mules '59 described his former teacher, colleague, and friend in the following remarks.

[Additional remembrances, submitted by alumni and friends, appear in the Alumni section.]

Thanks, Vicki and Craig. It is an honor to be asked to speak at your father’s memorial. Thank you, most of all for sharing your remarkable parents with the thousands of students and colleagues, both here and afar, who join us today in remembering your dad.

Please allow me to thank the friends of Ray who have helped with the preparation of these comments: Hugh Burgess, Rob Smoot, Tom Barranco, Max Mosner, and QD Thompson.

Like so many of you who are gathered here today in the Tagart Chapel and in the Ceres M. Horn Theater, I am a product of those stalwart men and women who Doc and Bob Lamborn assembled here on Foxleigh’s Hill.

Sadly, today we gather “To remember those who have gone forth from us…” The likes of: Kinard, Ramsay, Dawson, Smink, Thomas, Peters, Lynch, White, that list could go on… And today we add: Raymond B. Oliver.

In September of 1934 the Depression held America’s future hostage, a future that might have seemed bleak to a young man who easily fit John McDonogh’s description of being “a poor boy from Baltimore.”

Raymond Bertchall Oliver, 12 years old, weighing 83 pounds and residing at 1728 Poplar Grove Street, entered McDonogh School as a “Foundation Boy”… a scholarship student. He was student Number 3039, starting the seventh grade buoyed by the unfailing affection of his mother, Ruth North Oliver and driven to take the advantage of the opportunity he had been given.

I once asked Ray how he first became interested in wrestling and he told me the story of Charlie. During the fall of his first year, Ray was encouraged by a classmate to learn to ride. It was commonly understood among the students that good horsemanship was an efficient way to catch the eye of Doc Lamborn. Ray signed up for riding in the winter term and was assigned a spirited animal named Charlie. They never became friends.

Ray described Charlie’s persistent efforts to get Ray off his back. Although Ray held on for dear life, by the end of the season, Charlie had won. Ray never got back on board. He switched to wrestling the following year. A career was launched that would eventually include election to the Maryland Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame… We owe a vote of thanks to Charlie.

Lieutenant J.G. Raymond Oliver

As Ray approached graduation in his senior year, (I should note that Ray’s McDonogh class, the Class of 1940, has exerted an exceptional influence upon the life of the School. In addition to Ray, it included within its number a future head of school and two board chairmen… an unusual array of leadership within one cluster of seniors.)

As a senior, Ray sought an appointment to either the U.S. Naval Academy or the Coast Guard Academy in New London. He had earned a stellar record of leadership and had the unequivocal endorsement of his teachers. Charlie Kinard described Ray succinctly as “a superior boy in every respect.” Football coach Bob Lynch commented that Ray “has the spirit to be an All-American and, had he the weight, would be just that. His ability and courage are unquestioned.”

Writing to Maryland’s Senators Millard Tydings and George Radcliffe in support of Ray’s applications to the Naval Academy, Headmaster Louis E. Lamborn said, “This boy is one of the finest we have ever had at the school.” On March 31, 1940, an article in The Morning Sunpapers announced: “Cadet Captain Raymond B. Oliver Made Principal Appointment by Senator Radcliffe. Football Player Has Been Honor Student And Brilliant Athlete For Last Six Years.”

That summer Ray began his studies at Annapolis. As war clouds gathered both in Europe and the Pacific, Ray faced the daunting demands of the Naval Academy. From Room 2130, Bancroft Hall, he wrote a long letter to Doc Lamborn, describing the rigors of plebe year. He concluded with characteristic Ray Oliver insight, “I realize that the only one who can help Ray Oliver is Ray Oliver…”

Upon graduation from the Academy in 1944 (on the day following the invasion at Normandy) Ensign Raymond Oliver was assigned to duty in the Pacific. By 1945 he was a gunnery officer aboard the battleship USS Texas, seeing action that included kamikaze attacks. From the deck of that vessel, while providing gunfire support for the Battle of Iwo Jima, Ray witnessed the U.S. Marines raising the American flag over Mount Suribachi. Two years later in 1947 Ray received his discharge and he headed home, to McDonogh.

Ray married Evelyn Dorothy Funk on December 27, 1947. It was a partnership that would last and which would become a cornerstone for the McDonogh Family. Raising their children, Craig and Vicki, Ray and Evelyn were the epitome of what Doc Lamborn titled “The McDonogh Family.” They anchored the ethos of the School as an ethical, hard-working, and caring community. The humble roots of campus families gave the School its “small town” atmosphere… an ambience that can be traced back to the days of Colonel Allan. In 1966 Ray and Evelyn moved into a faculty home in the shadow of Tagart Chapel, where both their children would later be married.

Former student and fellow faculty member and coach Rob Smoot recalls: “Mr. Oliver, or Mr. O, or Coach O, was a mentor to many a McDonogh wrestler. He loved the sport of wrestling and appreciated what it could do to build character and make men out of boys. He was more concerned, however, with making his wrestlers good students and good citizens than he was about wins and losses, but don’t get me wrong – he was a fierce competitor. He, himself, was an accomplished wrestler, competing for the United States Naval Academy. “Mr. O loved to greet wrestlers with an arm drag just to see if we were ready to react. He anonymously funded wrestling camp for many students that could not afford it for themselves. In 2001 Mr. O was inducted into the Maryland Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. To this day, the older referees revere him and hold him up as a role model. Truthfully, Mr. O was a role model for all of us: students, faculty, staff, and coaches. We will always remember Mr. O with pride and affection. We will see his encouraging fist salute in our mind’s eye whenever we think of him.”

I was reminded by Rob’s comments of Ray’s habit of attempting an arm drag when he would shake hands with one of his former wrestlers. For the non- wresters in the house, the arm drag is an opening gambit designed to put the opponent off balance and to lead to a lightning quick take-down.

Once on the sidelines of a football game, I watched in awe as Ray shook hands with the Gilman Headmaster, Reddy Finney, himself an outstanding athlete and a collegiate wrestling captain… used the arm-drag move and with lightning speed was behind Reddy… who was a good 200 pounds… Ray was ready to earn 2 points for a take-down. Fortunately, he didn’t throw Reddy to the ground… that might have been a bit difficult to explain!

Although Ray was a highly respected master bridge player and tournament supervisor, I never heard that he used the arm drag at those gatherings…

Among the many friendships that Ray forged through his years on the faculty, none had stronger bonds than the partnership with Ed Kenney. Colonel Kenney and Lieutenant Oliver were the stage directors of the annual pageant that was the Competitive Drill. Ed and Ray would walk to a late afternoon tennis match frequented by the lobs and drop shots that lead to kindly and sarcastic banter, the Colonel wearing a battered sun hat and Ray with a white towel about his neck. The artist and the mathematician were life-long friends, the curricular odd couple, stalwarts of the McDonogh Family.

Sugar Ray and a Piece of Chalk

1959, Math class on the second floor of Allan Building… Algebra, Trigonometry, or Calculus… Sugar Ray at the front of the class, bouncing from blackboard to desk…For those students whose attention might drift from the equation at hand, it was wise to remember the remarkable accuracy of an Oliver-launched stub of chalk. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, nothing so concentrates one’s attention in math class as the sound of a piece of chalk whizzing past one’s ear. If chalk was not at the ready, an eraser would suffice.

With a Naval Academy ring that served as his scepter to anoint those “Hominy Heads” who appeared to have “left their brains in their back pockets,” Ray’s gruff façade gave poor disguise to his genuine concern for each and every one of his students… those gifted and those befuddled by mathematics. All knew that “Mr. O” expected their best and would do all he could to help them find their way to it.

Ray’s student, friend, and colleague at The Maryland State Fair, Tom Barranco writes:

“In addition to his lifelong employment and dedication to McDonogh School, Ray Oliver played a key role in the successful operation of the Maryland State Fair for over fifty years. During the summer of 1947, Ray visited the fairgrounds looking for part time summer employment to supplement his teacher’s income. He befriended the owner of the fair’s midway concession company and was immediately hired to manage the vendor’s business affairs, since he could type and was obviously strong in mathematics and money handling. Years later, the Maryland State Fair employed Ray to manage the admissions for the annual 10-day event. Prior to the closing of each school year, Ray recruited students to man the gates during the fair, emphasizing to his young employees the importance of good character, proper work ethic and job commitment. “I could never say no to Ray when asked if I would return each year. Ray didn’t just train me for his position, he taught me about life, how to treat people with respect, honesty, and dedication.”

The Quintessential Teacher and Coach

Ray’s friend and colleague Hugh Burgess writes: “For me, Ray Oliver was the quintessential teacher and coach. He was insistent, demanding, clear-headed, precise, goal-oriented, and competitive. He was, at the same time, unassuming, compassionate, infinitely fair, and dedicated to reaching out to the kid in trouble. All of those values inhabited the same teaching space as did his devotion to mathematics and the challenge of sports, especially wrestling. “Having entered McDonogh School as a scholarship student, Ray felt deeply indebted to the school for the opportunities that later came his way. Clearly, as a student, as a teacher and coach, as a leader and mentor, and as a member of the McDonogh community, he repaid his debt many times over.”

On behalf of those thousands of students and friends who owe a debt to a man who was so intent upon repaying his, I offer our thanks for the privilege of knowing Ray Oliver, Student #3039. And, as Doc Lamborn knew in 1940: “one of the finest we’ve ever had at McDonogh.”

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