Ray Polen was born in Michigan, the second of three children, preceded by his sister Barbara, and followed by his sister Margie. In elementary school his family moved to Wheaton, Illinois, and then, when Ray was in High School, to Ridgwood, New Jersey.
From very early on Ray there an independence to Ray that led him to set his on course in life. knowing precisely what he wanted to do in life. On his own initiative Ray got a license in ham radio, the start of a life long hobby through which he would reach out to talk to people on every corner of the earth, for instances scientists in Antarctica kept company by penguins. Ray overcame a certain innate shyness to develop the capacity to talk to pretty much anybody.
In High School Ray played soccer and ran track and played trombone in the marching band, where on one occasion his soft-spoken demeanor and communication skills to talk his fellow band members out of going on strike. (His daughter Nancy would later inherit this same capacity.)
He knew from early on that he wanted to be an electrical engineer, so after high school he went off to Wooster Polytech Institute in Massachusetts to study. But as was always the case with Ray his life had varied interests: he played lacrosse and served as steward of his fraternity. He also joined the local Emergency Management, using his ham radio skills to provide communication links during times of crisis. (Ray would go on to serve his community in this capacity throughout his life, receiving a certificate of appreciation for his service on air waves during the national tragedy of September 11th.)
Following graduation in 1953 Ray got a job in his field at ITT, but shortly thereafter was drafted to serve in army in the Korean War. In his characteristic humor — what his family would refer to as a “Daddy joke” — Ray noted that when the North Koreans heard that he was coming, they immediately signed a truce, so Ray spent his two years in the army working locally as an engineer at Picatinny Arsenal. Following the war Ray returned to work for ITT, switching later to Hewlit-Packer, then to Microstate, where he worked on signal generators, and finally for 21 years at a small company called Boonton Electronics, where he introduced the company to the field of signal generators. (Wherever Ray worked he made friends. Everybody liked Ray.)
Looking back, Ray’s adult life divides into three phases, the first of which were his single years. Ray wasn’t one to sit back and let life pass him by. He enjoyed life, and pursued the activities that evoked his passion. He spent his winter weekends skiing, jumping moggles on his down hill runs. Ray loved to travel, which he did for work and for vacations, having opportunity to experience mountain skiing in Scandinavia.
In his engineering work Ray discovered that the pilots were the ones having all the fun so he started taking private flying lessons, saving his money by eating canned spaghetti so he’d have money to on plane rentals. He got a kick out of taking friends up for flights over the Statue of Liberty.
At the age of 37 Ray took a cruise to Nassau and the Bahamas with two buddies. There he met a pretty young woman named Betty who was on the same cruise with three girlfriends. There was a natural chemistry between them, but at the time Betty had another boyfriend. After the cruise, Ray called Betty to ask her out, but because of the boyfriend, Betty turned him down. When six months later Betty dumped the boyfriend, she dropped Ray a post card, and never one to miss an opportunity to pursue what he wanted in life, Ray got right on the phone again, and this time Betty said yes (canceling an outing with her aunt to see slides at the library.)
For their first date Ray took Betty skiing in the pouring rain. The dating quickly got serious.
To distract himself while Betty was out of the country for a couple of months Ray bought his first sail boat with a friend. (With nothing more than the Golden Book of Sailing for directions, and the spirit of adventure that characterized Ray, he and his friend launched the new sail boat out on a lake, successfully tacking across the lake with the wind, finding themselves, however, at a bit of a loss as to how to get the boat back across the lake. I am told a kind stranger on the shore helped them pull the boat back along the shore, giving them a few pointers on the finer points of sailing along the way.)
Ray proposed to Betty, and 11 months after their first date they were married in a small wedding at the Congregational Church of River Edge. For the honeymoon, Ray told Betty he was going to surprise her: just make sure to pack your bathing suit, he said. He took her to Aruba.
Thus began the second phase of Ray’s adult life: his marriage and family life phase.
Two years after getting married, Betty gave birth to Nancy. Ray had never been baptized as a child. In Ray’s whimsical telling, there was a day when all the kids in his Sunday School class who hadn’t been baptized were supposed to be baptized, but their class was misbehaving, so they got held back, and he never got baptized as a child. So now, the three month old Nancy and the 40 year old Ray were baptized together.
Three years later Tom was born. Ray was older than most of the other Dads in the neighborhood, but sore back and all he gave himself over to the role of fathering.
When the children were old enough to travel, Ray began to take his family on vacations — not vacations that would have been particularly restful for him — but vacations his family would enjoy. There was the first test trip to Mystic to see if Nancy and Tom could travel without fighting. They fought, but Ray continued to take them on trips anyway, to Disney World, and Bermuda, and the Bahamas, and later to Lake Wallenpapack where the kids could water ski, and then to Disney World again, and finally Cape Cod. Ray truly loved his wife Betty and his children Nancy and Tom.
In middle school and high school Nancy referred to herself as her father’s little shadow, absorbing his hobbies as her own, Ham radio and photography, as well as his even-keeled nature. Tom inherited his father’s athleticism, his endearing sense of humor, his creativity and his technical wizardry on the computer.
The third phase of Ray’s life began when he retired from Boonton Electronics in 1991. This phase included spending Wednesday afternoons each week on his 22 foot sail boat with friends like Bill Loftus and Andy Demus. (Bill made it possible for Ray to keep sailing in the times when his health declined.)
It was not in Ray’s nature to just lay around and do nothing, and so in typical fashion he devised a plan to occupy his time in his retirement: he started Raytronix, a desk top Publishing business, that published restaurant menus and other documents for small businesses. Ingeniously, this allowed Ray to combine various pleasures: It involved playing around on his computer with creating something useful and appealing to the eye. (Once I discovered this talent of Ray’s I began to take advantage of it regularly on behalf of myself: Ray became the creative wizard behind all the church’s promotional material. Whenever I wanted a flier to look really good, I’d call Ray, and he always seemed so pleased to help me out.)
Beyond giving his creativity an outlet, Raytronix gave Ray opportunity to get out and meet people, to go out to lunch in most of the restaurants in Morris County as he met with clients. It was through this venue that Ray met Randy Odenbrett, a local restaurant manager who became like a son to Ray.
How Ray loved to go out to lunch with friends. He personally treated me to lunch maybe twenty times over the years. Richard Post, his long time friend from Boonton Electronics, enjoyed a regular Tuesday lunch outing with Ray for years. Ray Lafferty, his old boss and friend at Boonton Electronics, would join him frequently at Billy and Madeline’s Red Room, where everybody was always happy to see Ray. In the past year Fred Coleman was one of Ray’s regular lunch dates.
In 1996, as proud as a father can be, Ray walked his daughter Nancy down the aisle at her wedding to Paul, and danced with her at a truly beautiful reception at Waterloo Village. Ray was very fond of the man had chosen to give herself to in marriage, and so pleased to see his daughter’s happiness.
Now it was time for Ray and Betty to take some trips for their own personal enjoyment. And so beginning in 1997 and continuing through this past August, Ray and Betty went on nine different cruises: along the coast of Alaska, to the Galapagos Islands and to the Caribbean, to Iceland, to Costa Rica, along Lake Michigan, to the Caribbean again and to Tahiti, finally along the Coast of Maine. Ray and Betty preferred the less formal, more intimate cruises, which gave afforded opportunity to both meet people and interact with nature. They had so much fun together: After working so hard for so many years, how Ray enjoyed his time alone with Betty and the beautiful sights they saw together.
Everybody liked Ray. This is what you hear over and over as you talk to people. He was, the women say, “a gentleman.”
He was extraordinarily generous. Often his generosity was anonymously offered. There were occasions, of course, when his generosity was taken advantage of. But Ray was always determined to see the best in people, and he refused to let the occasional betrayals of his generosity change his essential open-heartedness, his consistent willingness to be of help to others in need. He referred to just about every body as a “good guy”, and his genuine kind-heartedness tended to bring out the “good guy” in people.
He conscientiously cultivated friendships, keeping his friendships forever. He organized a Hewlett Packer reunion, reaching back to friendships built by people who worked together in the sixties to bring people together to share happy memories. For well over 40 years, dating back to Ray’s single days, Ray hosted a New Year’s Eve Party, where anywhere from 8 to 40 people would gather to greet the new year playing games and enjoying the company of good friends. Bill and Joan Loftus and Joan’s mother Angela were regulars at these parties, as were Ed and Louisa Coffin.
He really liked people. When contractors would come to the house, Ray would take such interest in the workers, getting to know them, that they perhaps they didn’t get the work done as fast as they might. Art McMan tells a story of being down on the kitchen floor disconnected the gas line when suddenly there was a flash light — for a split second Art thought he had somehow managed to ignite a gas explosion. Fortunately, it was only Ray taking his picture with his digital camera. Ray loved to take people’s pictures. He’d take pictures of waitresses in restaurants, people at church events, people he met on trips. And then he would spend hours on his computer late at night laying out photos displays with elaborate captions that he could present to people the next day. It gave him such pleasure.
His favorite person to photo in the past two years was his granddaughter Laura, who loved her Pop Pop. No matter how badly he was feeling, Ray would light up for Laura.
He was a good listener. Steady, calm. As Nancy said, he gave good advice. One of his basic principles was: “You take it from where your at.” In other words, you make the best of what God has given you, enjoying it fully — you don’t waste time and energy wishing you were somewhere other than where you are. He was very practical, down to earth.
We are all, as we said, pretty stunned. We only just heard 11 days ago that Ray had cancer. Apparently the cancer had quietly grown all through him. Ray had an extraordinary pain threshold, and was not one to complain, but in the last days of his life the pain was at times downright unbearable.
Nonetheless, he embraced the gift of his life. He enjoyed the visit of Nancy, Paul and Laura, his phone calls to his son Tom, and his phone calls with his friends. He cried together, and he laughed together with Betty. Just a week okay the pain eased enough so he could take Paul’s parents out to dinner at The Station in Mountain Lakes, and how it pleased him to do so.
This past Monday morning, the day of his death, I stopped by to see Ray. He had insisted that I drop by some church work for him to do, he wanted to stay busy. There he was, obviously in absolutely excruciating pain, sitting at his computer console, scanning pictures of his granddaughter, Laura. He wanted to show me the pictures he’d taken on his recent cruise, taking obvious pleasure tell me of the good time he had had with Betty. It was so like Ray. We made plans to have lunch together Wednesday.
That evening, his body gave out. It happened quickly.
We will miss him. I think I will continue to see him while I preach. He would tape the worship services, and I would see him standing in the hallway there, his arms together in that way he would stand. His back hurt him too much to sit through the service. It always touched me to see him standing there. Gee, I’d think to myself, what I am saying must be worth hearing if Ray is willing to stand there listening so intently. Preachers need these kinds of reassurances from time to time.
Ray’s death my cancer could have been drawn out; it could have been really terrible. He could have spent long periods of time confined to bed, withering away. Ray would have absolutely hated that. He always wanted to be a participant in life, a contributor. It was merciful, as someone said, to take Ray as God did.
Years ago, Betty heard a pastor say that spouses should discuss burial plans, so she came home and asked Ray and asked him whether he would like to be buried or cremated. Ray, paused for a moment, and then with a smile and a twinkle in his eye said, “Surprise me.” How Ray could make us laugh.
Betty asked that we sing the baptismal hymn, “I was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.” The song imagines God speaking to a child on the day of baptism. The final verse goes like this:
“I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old. I rejoiced the day you were
baptized, to see your life unfold. When the evening gently closes in and you shut your wear
eyes, I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.”