Family and friends will gather at 9 this morning at the Charlotte Avenue YMCA to remember Jimmy Ray, a large, gentle-hearted man who taught many Rock Hill residents how to swim and build character in the process.
A brief prayer service will be held before the family and many friends head to Savannah, Ga., for a visitation tentatively scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Fox and Weeks Funeral Home and burial Thursday at Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah.
Ray, 54, died from a heart attack Saturday evening in a new home he and his wife, Pam, had recently finished.
He had been aquatics director at the YMCA from 1975 to 1980 after the Charlotte Avenue indoor pool was just built. He served the Sumter, Greenville and Simpsonville YMCAs at various times from 1980 to 1992 before joining the private sector. In January 2006 he returned to the Upper Palmetto YMCA as operations director for the Rock Hill, York, Clover and Chester facilities.
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"He was a big guy who appeared sometimes gruff, but he had a big heart and was actually a teddy bear," said Moe Bell, chief executive officer of the Upper Palmetto YMCA. "He had people skills and knew how to manage people. He was more of a coach than a supervisor."
Louise Hassenplug, a retired Winthrop University professor and avid Y water-walker, said she always had time to get to know Y members.
"He was a friendly, easy person to talk to," she said. "When people came, they could sit down and talk with him. I knew him well enough that this has really touched me. I'm broken-hearted."
Robert Hope, YMCA executive director in the mid-1970s when the indoor pool was built, needed an aquatics director and a swim team coach. He calls the day Jimmy Ray took the job as "a great day in the life of the YMCA. It was just a match from the word go."
He recalls that his new employee got along with both parents and children, and could fix anything as a bonus.
"He had a knack for knowing how to work with children," Hope remembered. "He built character. Everybody in Rock Hill learned to swim at the Y. Jimmy Ray will be remembered as an important person to all those he came in contact with."
Like many who knew Jimmy Ray, Hope considered him one of his best friends.
"He was like one of my own, and I loved him," Hope said.
In addition to his wife, Jimmy Ray is survived by three sons: Michael Ray of Myrtle Beach, Matthew Ray of Rock Hill and Andrew Ray, a student at the University of South Carolina.
Michael described his father as an enthusiastic golfer and devoted Baptist who loved his family first.
"He was a gentle giant," he said. "He genuinely cared for everybody. He met everybody with open arms and a smile."
The family would like memorials to go to the Upper Palmetto YMCA, 323 Oakland Ave., Rock Hill, SC 29730. Anyone wishing to write a message to the family may go to upymca.org and click on condolences for Jimmy Ray.
"My dad loved the Y," his son said.
Arrangements in Savannah can be found on the funeral home Web site, foxandweeks.com.