Seated on a plane at the Champaign-Urbana airport, waiting for the remaining passengers to board the short flight back to Chicago, a by-then-familiar voice asked, "Do you mind if I join you? I had to smile, as Ray was already sliding into seat next to me, permission or no.
"You're one of our boys, aren't you?" he asked, as he settled into the cramped seat. Warm and friendly, he still managed to exude a quiet gravitas which compelled me to instinctively reply, "Yes, sir", as if I were still back in the U.S. Air Force. Of course, he had already known the answer to his question, but it was a good opener to kick off the conversation.
We had only met, briefly, just that morning, at a photo-op with some of my colleagues. The only surviving photograph of that occasion shows all of us garbed in light-blue lab coats, surrounding Ray as we stand next to one of NCSA's supercomputers. Not surprisingly, the image shows us all laughing heartily at one of Ray's many jokes.
With a subtle hand gesture, Ray managed to summon the flight attendant as he asked,"Can I buy you a drink?". I'm sure he already knew the answer to that question, also. "Certainly" was my non-nonchalant reply, as I attempted to mimic Ray's level of cool confidence.
We casually chit-chatted for a bit, until our cocktails arrived, and then Ray subtlety got down to business, in a transition that was so smooth, it was almost imperceptible. I then realized more fully why he was such a legend.
Drink in one hand, and a pen in the other, he drew a graph on his cocktail napkin, and began his pitch. He explained that the graph indicated time on one axis, and progress on the other.
He slowly and painfully drew a shallow angle indicating a modest achievement, then referring to one of the other NCSA Industrial Partners, he said, "That's Caterpillar". His voice had a serious tone, and he shot me a quick squint eye-to-eye to make sure he drove home his point. I wasn't quite sure what was coming next.
Without breaking eye contact, Ray made a quick slash of the pen to draw another line, representing the ideal forty-five degree slope of achievement that a man in his position always expects to see, but seldom does. "That's you guys", he said with the evident self-satisfaction of a man who had just bested a friendly rival. The clink of our two glasses, as he toasted our mutual success, still rings in my ears today.
As Ray began to place down his drink, I reached for his napkin-graph and asked, "Do you mind if I keep this? I want to give it to a friend". "Sure" he said, looking a bit puzzled. Then I followed with,"But first you have to sign it". Smiling a broad smile, he kindly obliged with a flourishing autograph.
The short flight back to Chicago was all too short, as I could have listened to that man tell stories, forever. Yet, he generously gave equal time, and listened, carefully, as much as he spoke. That all-too-brief conversation was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire FMC career.
I had to make a connection in Chicago, in order to return to my office at FMC's Corporate Technology Center,in Santa Clara, California. As Ray and I exchanged farewells at O'Hare Airport, I secretly wished he was going back to the coast with me. I would have loved spend more time with him, but never again had the opportunity.
I think what impressed me the most was that -- despite the evident difference in our relative positions within the corporate structure -- Ray treated me as a true peer and colleague. I considered it a great privilege to have spent just that short amount of time with someone possessed of such intellect, warmth, and quiet, understated power.
When I returned to my office at CTC the next day -- with cocktail napkin in hand -- I went to the office of my friend and colleague, K. Micheal Skreiner, Phd. As Manager of the Numerical Simulation and Analysis Department at CTC, it was Mike's visionary leadership that Ray had actually been toasting on the flight to Chicago.
Mike listened with evident pride and joy as I related my encounter with Ray, obviously wishing he had shared the experience. I then presented Ray's autographed napkin-chart to Mike as a gift, and gave credit where credit was due.
The very next day, I again visited Mike's office, where I found him seated at his desk with a broad smile, looking as happy as I had ever seen him. Prominently displayed in the center of the wall behind him -- as if it were a holy relic -- was the framed napkin-graph presented to me by Ray Tower.