Tom Ray, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner who championed the underdog and helped envision the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, died early Monday in Asheville. He was 75.
Ray had been in ill health since suffering a stroke two decades ago in his Charlotte home.
"I don't know of anyone who had the best interests of the community more at heart than Tom Ray," said fellow Democrat Fountain Odom, who served with him as a commissioner.
Ray, affable and even garrulous, served on the commission from 1978-84, chairing the board for two years. He served on the Charlotte Housing Authority for six years before that.
Ray was an outspoken advocate of human service programs – the Tom Ray Center for troubled teens was named for him. He served on the county's Adolescent Pregnancy Council and Bethlehem Center's Head Start Policy Council.
"He was a surrogate dad to so many individuals," said Betsy Ray. Her father, she added, offered "his wisdom, his time, his ear and … a good kick in the pants when they needed it."
Ray also was an advocate for the environment. In 1983, he convinced commissioners to set aside $100,000 to beautify Little Sugar Creek, describing it at the time as a "floating landfill."
"It was a time when we were thinking big, and he was a big thinker," historian and friend Dan Morrill said.
A Charlotte native and Central High School graduate, Ray earned undergraduate and law degrees from UNC Chapel Hill. He studied history at Cambridge University in England. He practiced law, mostly in a solo practice.
Tom Ray wasn't the only one in his family who helped shape the community.
In the early 1970s, his wife Maggie chaired a citizens group enmeshed in the thorny struggle to desegregate Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Over one stretch, her group met every night for six months to come up with a pupil-assignment plan.
In 1974, it was their plan that was adopted.
Both Rays were devout Presbyterians and longtime Sunday School teachers. As with his wife, Tom Ray's religion influenced his public life.
"At Cambridge he did a lot of reading about Christianity and its place in the world," said Jack Claiborne, a former Observer editor. "He took seriously the idea that we were our brothers' keepers, 'Do unto the least of these and ye have done it onto me.'?"
In 1991 Ray suffered a stroke. It slowed him down physically but failed to sap all his energy. It gave him another reason to empathize with the less fortunate.
He joined the board of St. Mark's, a program serving people with physical and developmental disabilities. He spent up to 40 hours a week finding money and volunteers for the center, wheedling and cajoling as needed.
Hobbling along with an aluminum cane, he would escort visitors and would-be donors through hallways brightened by children's drawings and paper mobiles. He showed them classrooms and the faces of children.
At the same time, he regularly called an out-of-town friend and fellow stroke victim to lift his spirits. He once said he knew what it was like to be treated "as if you were invisible."
"It didn't diminish his spirit one bit," Morrill said. "He was energetic, persistent, exuberant. He was a glass-half-full guy if I ever knew one."
Ray once explained his own resilience.
"If you wanted to know my motives," he said, "I would suggest you go home tonight and read the book of James. It's in the New Testament. Faith without works is dead. . . . And if a man ain't got much good works, he ain't got much faith."
Ray is survived by his wife, Margaret Whitton Ray; daughter Betsy Ray; and son Will Ray, and his wife Lauren and their two daughters.
Memorial services will be 11 a.m. Thursday at Myers Park Presbyterian Church and at 1 p.m. Friday at Black Mountain Presbyterian Church.
Published in Charlotte Observer from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, 2012