Ray Menaker's Eulogy
Gershon introduced me as Haines' Eulogist Laureate at Ray's memorial, and I actually kind of like the title. That Ray Menaker and John Schnabel died within a few months of each other, and that they were sort of the Yin and Yang of modern Haines, and that they spent their last years together at Haines Assisted Living is kind of interesting, too. The legacy of both, I think, has a lot to do with how we live today in modern Haines--
(I know it's long for a blog, but eulogies aren't blogs. (Thank goodness.) It's also written to be read out loud by me-- I did not re-write it for print yet, so please excuse any bumps in grammar or syntax...)
(Delivered April 30, 2016 at the Chilkat Center in Haines)
Isn’t nice to celebrate a long, productive, and happy life? Ray Menaker was 93 when he died peacefully at Haines Assisted Living on September 22, 2015.
It would also be nice to say Ray would be pleased to see you all here, but that may not be the case.
Ray didn’t want a funeral. He wrote instructions “Regarding My Death” way back on October 22, 1958, asking to “Please let my passing from life be marked by as little notice as possible.” In case we ignored his wishes, he requested, “no mention of the hereafter, nor of God. My passing is not a return anywhere, nor a venture into a spirit world. The organization of elemental units of matter that was I will be through, the matter will go on, but reorganized and no longer I.” He said whom ever is tasked with speaking about his life to “any people who may have gathered as a result of my demise…recall as well as possible anything that I may have done that was helpful to mankind.”
Well, for starters, Ray mentored a generation of youth, teaching 7th and 8th grade social studies and English, and high school French, journalism, drama and speech; he supported, participated in and cultivated our town’s cultural and civic side, from his involvement in the radio station, Lynn Canal Community Players, and support of the Fair, to his leadership on the Borough Assembly, his environmental activism with Lynn Canal Conservation, and especially through the newspaper he founded fifty years ago, The Chilkat Valley News.
Ray loved Victor Borge piano slapstick, and was a showman himself, except Haines was Ray’s stage, and he delighted in all the many players. Early on Ray was type cast as a rumpled schoolteacher, newsman, left-leaning Jewish Ivy League New Yorker, who settled in rural Alaska, and downplayed his intellect and chose words thoughtfully. He played the same role his entire life.
Ray liked to say that no one is irreplaceable, but it’s safe to say that there was only one Ray and we won’t see his equal again. He would call that nonsense, as evidenced by the way he replied whenever anyone asked him how he was ---“About medium, thank you.”
Bonnie Hedrick who was one of Ray’s successors as Chilkat Valley News publishers said the paper—and it’s mission to inform residents on all things great and small, is his greatest legacy. She praised his calm and unflappable manner even when a crisis arose with a big story on a deadline. “No matter what was happening, Ray could see through to a solution,” she said. Bonnie regrets she can’t be here today, but is down south with family.
Above all, Ray was, as current Chilkat Valley News publisher Tom Morphet said, a democrat with a small “d” who wanted people to have all the information, and then to figure things out for themselves.
Ray was genuinely interested in learning how other people thought, and why they came to their conclusions.
Sometimes this took him a long, long time.
Luckily, Ray always seemed to have plenty of time, yet he was rarely idle. He helped form and steer the first borough government, supported the development and expansion of the schools, library, Chilkat Center, museum, parks, social services, local media, and local products and services. He spoke up for clean air and water, organic gardening and little children, the elderly, and the needy. Ray never walked the way the wind blew, rather kept his compass pointed to his own true North while leaning into Lynn Canal gales both literal and metaphorical.
Tom Morphet said it’s significant that Ray took strong stands on national issues -- withholding his taxes during the Vietnam war, going to the Soviet Union during the Cold War – and he attempted to educate all the Presidents from Eisenhower onwards on how to run the country, with frequent letters- while at the same time he was so pragmatic about getting things done in town, that voters elected him over and over again. Ray served eight terms on the borough assembly, the majority when it was also the school board.
Tom said that besides never taking a penny from the Chilkat Valley News – Ray gave profits to employees-- Ray donated all his assembly meeting stipend checks to the Chilkat Valley Preschool. “He was very much a philanthropist, though he never really has gotten credit as one,” Tom said.
Ray was a family man first, an inspiring father to David, Allen, and Terry, and Vivian’s devoted husband (which is why he was asked to officiate many weddings) he built his own home (which is why he was not asked to build any more) and with Vivian and the family, grew and raised a lot of his own food. Visualize a rambling, drafty log cabin, wood piles, gardens, chickens-- and as years passed, turkeys, pigs and even a few lambs. He had a regular mini -homestead up on what became Menaker Road. There was no TV, and the house was filled with music thanks to Ray’s extensive record collection, which also included comedy, Shakespeare and other spoken-word recordings. Ray and Vivian were foster parents to a handful of local boys, including Ed Baker, who became a health aid, and in Ray and Vivian’s last years, cared for them. Their home was the set for Ray’s life. He’d greet guests at the door with, "Step right in, immediate seating in the balcony," and then after dinner he’d deliver a dramatic reading from James Thurbur’s “13 Clocks.”
Ray taught school full time, and edited, published, and even printed the weekly paper typesetting pages with metal letters on an old fashioned press. He got the idea after starting a school newspaper with his journalism class student Bill Hartmann who also worked for him at the real paper after school.
Ray was a founding member of Lynn Canal Conservation at a time when sawmills were the community’s mainstay and was often the target of ire. He advocated closing 40,000 acres of the Chilkat Valley to logging to create the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, and later served on its advisory council.
Bill Hartmann said that while Ray took criticism philosophically and not personally and didn’t complain, there was one time when he saw Ray hurt. They were in the Post Office when a person Ray respected accosted him saying, "The only reason you started the newspaper was to ruin Haines.”
And being called Red Ray made him angry. Ray was not a communist, and would take pains to explain the difference between social democrats and communist fascists to the source of the slander. Ray told friends, with some glee, that he knew he had come full circle in Haines when the same person who used to call him Red Ray denounced him as a “John Bircher.”
Ray was enough of a realist to know he wasn’t going to change everything he wanted to, his son Allen said, but stuck with public service anyway, because he “wasn’t in politics for himself, rather he was looking out for everybody.” Often his views were in the minority. Once, before Skype, when Ray was visiting his daughter Terry in England, his supporters bought him a round trip ticket to Haines so he could attend an assembly meeting and thwart his detractors who had planned to remove him from office invoking the un-excused absence rule.
Bob Andrews was on the assembly with Ray and said he initially drove him crazy by postponing votes until he was certain all parties were heard from and informed. As time progressed, Bob said, Ray taught him that good governing cannot be rushed and everyone benefits from looking at an issue from many points of view even when the result seems obvious.
For instance, when the school board laid off teachers over a reduction in students, the board planned to cut their own meeting stipend as a goodwill gesture, until Ray, who already gave his own check away, said it was wrong. He argued that the purpose of the stipend was so that holding office wouldn’t cost citizens money, and thus be open to all. He said a single mother may not run for the school board unless she has funds for childcare.
The board agreed.
Ray always used the word ‘may’—rather than ‘can’, to highlight the difference between being able to act, and choosing to.
Ray was a founder and longtime board member of KHNS and produced a weekly program called Tales & Tunes, where he read from Saki, O Henry, Wordsworth and more-- and played music from his hero Paul Robeson, Edith Piaf, and Pete Seeger as well as Appalachian reels and Viennese waltzes.
He was an early force behind Lynn Canal Community Players and regularly performed in and directed shows, including acting in the old summer tourist melodramas “The Smell of the Yukon” and “Lust for Dust” and was the board treasurer for decades and liked to do magic tricks at variety shows.
Here is his back story:
Raymond Robert Menaker was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 25, 1922, the youngest of three sons of accountant George and Sara Menaker. His father was one of seven sons of Lithuanian immigrants. Ray’s well-educated uncles were influential in his upbringing. Ray’s parents were socialist sympathizing, non-practicing Jews. Ray grew up in New York City, where he watched construction of the Empire State Building from his kitchen window.
A heart murmur kept him from playing sports, so he took up singing, tap dancing, and fencing. He attended an uncle’s summer camp in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts where he enjoyed all the activities he would later champion in Haines, drama, arts and crafts, journalism, song and dance, as well as a love of nature.
Ray graduated from Columbia University in 1943 where he studied French and Russian and fenced and worked nights in a laboratory taking hourly temperatures of test tubes and chemical reactions. He learned later that the lab was part of the Manhattan Project, and it bothered him enough to have played even a bit part in the making of the Atomic bomb that he never spoke about it. After graduation Ray enlisted in the Navy, serving during the war as a communications training officer on a destroyer escort vessel working between Miami and Cuba. In his last years at HAL Ray conducted semaphore demonstrations. He never forgot the coded motions, though he became a pacifist.
Following the war, Ray and an Army buddy drove from Florida to San Francisco, where he enrolled in a master’s program at Stanford University on the GI Bill and found work at an elementary school at Menlo Park. There he met Vivian, a fellow teacher. They married in 1949 and he adopted her 6 year-old son David. After a change in school administration, they considered a move to New Zealand, India, or Alaska. They chose Pelican, and drove north in the summer of 1954 in an old car with a cat, 2 kittens, 3 children (2,3,10) and all their worldly possessions. Ray parked the car in Haines and they took a plane and boat to Pelican.
The rest, as they say, is our history.
They left Pelican after a year, because Ray wanted David to study music in school, and Haines had a music teacher and teaching positions for Ray and Vivian. They bought land in 1956 and built a log house while living in an old prospector's cabin and a tent. Ray began teaching French in 1960, and in 1961 he traveled with the family to France for 6 weeks on a shoestring budget, to learn the culture and language more thoroughly to better teach it. He declared success when his accent was mistaken for Parisian in Marseilles.
In the summer of 1969, the Menakers went back to France via Anchorage, Japan, and a boat to Siberia. They traveled to Odessa and Yalta, where as daughter Terry said, Ray realized a life-long dream of floating on his back in the Black Sea as his Ukrainian grandmother once had, and retold the stories he remembered from sitting on her knee as a boy.
Before old age slowed him, Ray continued to travel the world with Vivian from extended family visits in England all the way to China, usually with an educational purpose; call square dances, read widely, and take long walks around town in his sort of uniform: cloth vests Vivian sewed him with pockets for pens and papers, Birkenstocks with hand knit wool socks, corduroy pants, and homespun sweaters that smelled a little like pork and wood smoke. In Ray’s case homespun really was--
He spun the wool he wore, and demonstrated the craft at the Fair each year. When Ray traveled he carried what looked like a wooden briefcase, but when opened, up popped an operable spinning wheel, providing him an instant audience in airports and on ferries.
Vivian and son David precede Ray in death. He leaves behind, son Allen and wife Jan, of Fairbanks, and their 3 sons James, John and Rob; daughter Terry Lambert and husband James, of Leasgill, England, and their daughters Natalie and Jennifer, and son Peter; and David’s wife Jeannette, and David and his first wife Julie’s children Natasha, Katie, and David, and fourteen great grandchildren, eight nieces and nephews, fifteen great-nieces and nephews, and two cousins.
When Ray wrote instructions “Regarding My Death” in 1958, he was new to Haines. He said then he wanted to make the world a better place for mankind and hoped he’d be remembered for doing that.
Over fifty years later, he has left Haines a better place for our kind, and some clues about how he managed to live happily here for a long time while speaking up for values and causes he cared about that weren’t always popular.
It helped tremendously that he had Vivian’s support, companionship, and love for 61 years, and that he was a thinker not a fighter, kept his sense of humor, and had the public courage to match his private convictions, so he slept well. In the end, the institutions Ray supported and the sensibilities he led by, have proved instrumental in making Haines the diverse community we are, and that is why we are better able to weather economic and social changes.
Ray did leave one piece of very public advice that he stuck on whatever little, old, Subaru he drove, the bumper sticker “Question Authority.”
In doing that, and encouraging others to, Ray gave Haines are motto. Everyone can agree that Haines is a place where authority is questioned. And that is no doubt the heart of the matter that was Ray and the essence of this pretty little town looking over the blue-green waters of Lynn Canal, that Ray was so proud to call home, and no doubt why many of us still do too.