Life Lived Large: The Legacy of Danny Ray

I will apologize up front because this post is not going to be grammatically correct, my words will not be eloquent, and my spelling will probably suck.  This is a story I need to tell straight from the heart.

There are times when I’d like to kick Life right in the groin.  I want to be Ralphie and finally have my go at Scott Farkus, fists swinging and foul words erupting in a shit storm of rage.  In fact, I want to make up new foul words so bad they’ll go viral in trashy internet memes.  And then I want a do-over.

In Junior High School I was a typical misfit kid.  I wasn’t the popular girl and I wasn’t an outcast, but I fell in that enormous chasm of kids in the middle,  just trying to figure out who I was and how to fit in.  But I was blissfully unaware of being average because I had a group of spirited friends who valued outrageous fun over social status.  We loved an adventure that would be funnier every time we told the story.  We had each other’s backs and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

There was Suzi who was opinionated and hilarious and a natural born leader.  When she said “jump” we jumped, knowing she may lead us to the precipice, but aware that life would be experienced in a big way in her presence.   Then there was Kim.  Kim was refined and rational, the one we could count on to keep us all from getting into too much trouble.   But she also laughed easily and often, and she fully encouraged and enjoyed our exploits.  In later years Hugo would join our band of merry people.  He was the pretty boy and as much as we loved looking at him, we loved his ornery spirit even more.

But the glue that held us all together was Danny Ray.  He was an enormous personality, someone who commanded a room when he walked in the door.  He was probably the first gay friend any of us had, but back then I don’t even know if we really comprehended what it meant to be gay and it didn’t matter.  Danny never pulled a punch.  He wasn’t shy about telling you like it was, but he had no malice, and in the next minute he’d “laugh at the leap” and it would be forgotten in a riotous fit of laughter.  When we were with Danny, we were carefree and we were happy and we all felt like we were the most important people in his life.

On March 2, 2016 Danny Ray passed away unexpectedly.  Through all of his years he always pursued his love for acting and directing.  His career eventually led him to Marshall University where he became a faculty member at our alma mater, coached the debate team, and became a revered member of our community as he shared his passion with so many others.

In 1990 Danny’s absence from our 10-year high school reunion left a void for all of us.  He had been trying to make it in acting in New York and the rumor circulating was that he didn’t want to come to the reunion because he wanted to be able to return as a successful actor.  This past week, I read innumerable memorials to him.  People from high school remembered the things he had done for them, referred to him lovingly as a dear friend.  His co-workers devastated by the loss.  The students and fellow actors lost without his joyful presence and mentorship.  The articles in The Herald Dispatch attesting to the loss of a great man.  The West Virginia Building in downtown Huntington, WV lit up with green lights in honor of him.

Danny was never meant to be a famous actor in New York.  His life was bigger than that.  I was in awe of  the number of people he touched, the young people he groomed for great futures, those who credit him with their successes, and those who simply loved being in his presence.  You see, back in Junior High and High School, he made our little group of friends feel like we were the most important people in his life.   But he did that same thing for everyone whose lives were fortunate enough to be touched by him.  Danny Ray was an icon.  He was larger than life and he made all of our lives larger by association.  He filled our hearts with laughter.  He made a difference in our world.

I lost touch with him over the years  and I have come to realize just how much I missed by letting life get in the way.   I have so many stories to tell and so many more that I’ve forgotten over the years because of that distance.  Without that ongoing contact with the important people in our lives we begin to forget what they meant to us and how their friendship shaped the people we are today.  I’m grateful for Facebook because I’ve been able to reconnect with Danny and Kim and Suzi, but the truth lies in the people whose lives they have touched. Danny will always be a part of me and I am so proud of him.

Suzi and I started work together at the Burger Chef when we were 15 years old and those were some of the most fun days of my life.  She was promoted to management in the company at a very young age, and then became an entrepreneur when she opened her own chain of fast food restaurants.  Today she is a very accomplished professional in a government agency.  No one who knows Suzi is surprised by her accomplishments.  She is a part of me and I am so proud of her.

Kim is an accountant now.  She raised 2 daughters and now has a grandson and is an amazing mother, wife and daughter/daughter-in-law who sets the bar for what it means to be family.   She and her husband give of their time  to students, acting as mentors in my home town community and changing lives for the better.  She is a part of me I am so proud of her.