Character Makes the Man – Meet Bob Ray

History is filled with records of family businesses generations old. Few, though, show a passion that transcends over the years, through father to son to grandson, and now, to great-grandson.

The Ray family has weaved that passion into a family business that began with Thomas Ray in 1894, and continues to this day through “Tee” Ray, his great-grandson.

 

KM_C224e-20140923094529In 1894, the World’s Fair in Chicago was destroyed by fire. The New England Telephone and Telegraph installed its first battery-operated telephone switchboard in Lexington, Massachusetts. And the first college basketball game was played, with the University of Chicago beating the Chicago YMCA 19-11.

 

In 1894, Thomas Ray began his lifelong career of diagnosing and caring for trees and other plants, in addition to running the Thomas Ray Nursery, located on Old LaGrange Road. Thomas was known as a “tree surgeon” and a pioneer in the care of trees. His son, Carl Ray, continued in the tree business, but he branched out, renamed it the Carl Ray Nursery, moved it over to LaGrange Road, and expanded it to include a landscaping business, which installed trees and shrubs all over Louisville, including many of the large estates in Louisville. In 1960, Carl’s son Bob opened his own business of diagnosing and caring for trees.

 

Robert “Bob” Ray was a cadet in the Kentucky Military Institute, played football throughout his high school years, and was captain of the football team as a senior. The school’s motto, “Character Makes the Man,” made such an impression on the young man that he carried it with him throughout his life. Bob’s love for trees determined the course of his life. He founded the Bob Ray Co. in 1960, and he devoted his time to the care and management of trees. Initially, he ran the company out of his home on Leyton Avenue, just down the street from his father’s nursery on LaGrange Road. In 1974, he was the primary organizer and an active member in Trees Inc. of Louisville. In 1989, he was elected President of the American Society of Consulting Arborists. “He was known throughout the United States as a consulting arborist,” Tee Ray said. “That’s what he loved to do.”

 

Bob’s passion was the care of the tree. “He loved the trees. He didn’t care about the landscaping; he just wanted to work with the trees,” reminisced Louise Ray, Bob’s wife of 61 years. “Bob LOVED trees and his family, fishing. Bob didn’t like to socialize, but when Bob talked to people about trees, they understood what he was saying because he presented it very, very well. ” Bob offered treatment for trees under stress and those that had disease or insect problems. Operating with 2-6 employees and 2 trucks, he continued his business until 1992, when he stepped down and sold it to his son. Tee has expanded his father’s business to encompass 60+ employees and more than 50 trucks and to continue in the treatment and care of trees. The company in 2014 now includes tree removals, trimming, a tree replacement division, and two subsidiary companies, Chip Trucking LLC and Natural Products, both of which work to recycle and reuse the tree in the form of mulch, lumber, pulp wood, and fuel chips.

 

Along with the Bob Ray Co., Bob was very involved in the education and understanding of trees. He, along with John Hartman, Ph.D., and Larry Lose, co-founded the Kentucky Shade Tree Association in 1977, the precursor to the Kentucky Arborists Association. “He saw the need to have somebody organize and get the group of tree men educated about tree care, and one way to do this was through a tree association,” said Larry. “Bob came to me, and asked me if I would work with him.”

 

Bob’s impetus for the Kentucky Shade Tree Association was a desire to educate those who were working with trees. Bob and Larry would hand out cards and invite those they saw out working on trees to come to their meetings. “If we saw somebody out with a truck, we would ask them to come to the meetings. If we were working on a tree and saw someone, we would take them a card and ask them to come join us and come to our meeting,” recalled Larry.

 

“We started the trade show, and it got so big that we couldn’t control it,” Larry remembered. The trade show was incorporated into the Kentucky Nursery and Landscape Association convention. Many of the earlier KNLA trade shows were held at Executive West in Louisville, right across from the Exposition Center. “We put in a lot of our training sessions then. (Bob) was a big recruiting tool. He made (the Kentucky Shade Tree Association) the professional organization that it is now. That was his goal to get that started in Kentucky, and he was successful. He had University of Kentucky involved (with Dr. Hartman, a plant pathologist), which gave it more credibility,” Larry said. “Bob was big on pushing the arborists certification process.” Dr. Bill Fountain, a tenured professor at UK, serves on the board for the Kentucky Arborists Association, and he is an integral part of the group, overseeing and running classes for arborist certification, as well as a new program, the Tree Risk Assessment Qualification.

 

In 1982, the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) convention was held in Louisville. By then, the Kentucky Arborists Association had 32 members, the smallest state group to host an ISA convention. Everyone served on a committee. Bob and Louise Ray were on committees, Larry was on a committee, and Tee was involved in the tree climbing competition, or Jamboree, as it was known then. Preparation for the convention began in 1977, and by the time the ISA rolled into Louisville, the committees had put together a program that included a ride on the Belle of Louisville, a day trip to Bernheim Forest, and a trip for the children of the attendees to the Kentucky Horse Park. “We entertained 1,500 people for five days,” recalled Larry. “I was treasurer of the Association at the time, and it was the first time the convention ever made a profit. We even had a beer license for the Bernheim day trip.”

“Bob was the one and only who was looked up to when it came to trees. If you needed a tree taken care of you would go to Bob,” recalled Marilyn Lose, Larry’s wife who served as secretary for the Kentucky Shade Tree Association.

“Bob was the educator; he did all the training,” Larry remembered. “He brought in examples. His notes were all on paper, before all the tapes came out. He gave a lot of demonstrations. That was his goal: To educate people and get them involved in the care of trees. He was also big in educating the climbers. We had Jamborees (a precursor to the Tree Climbing events) before we got into ISA here in Kentucky.”

 

“He’s like a legend for trees,” said Marilyn. “Theodore Klein (a world-renowned horticulturist, famous for his Holly collection and, of course, Yew Dell) and Bob Ray were the big ones in the industry. They were pioneers,” she continued, “because they were breaking ground with the trees and nurseries.”

“They were special.”