Everyone knows people who seem to have unlimited energy. They work multiple jobs, raise children, are active in their church, participate in social clubs and activities and never seem to run out of steam. Recent restrictions due to COVID-19 may have slowed, but not stopped, their activities. These powerhouses find ways to remain engaged, with family, friends and in their communities well into their eighties, and beyond.
One such powerhouse is Wichitan Aulene Ray. The early death of a parent, several early career changes, and burying her husband, and two of her four children hasn’t stopped Ray from continuing to lead a full and active life.
Children often choose to attend college where one (or both) of their parents attended. Aulene Ray and her sister, Darnett Wilson, made that choice in the1930s. They attended Western University, the first Historically Black College/University (HBCU) west of the Mississippi … and the only one ever in Kansas. “My birth mother went there, but she died when I was about 18 months old. I never knew her.”
Ray says, even growing up during the Depression, she never had a choice about whether – or where – she would go to college. Ray’s father remarried a few years after her mother’s death and her new mom (they never used the term “step”) made sure both daughters would be able to continue that educational legacy. “She did everything for us any mom would do … she sacrificed things she wanted to be sure we had what she thought we should have.”
Ray studied piano at Western, but also earned a teaching certificate. She completed both programs in five semesters. After graduation, in 1939 she returned home to Lexington, KS – in western Johnson County — and worked with her mother, who was a domestic for a wealthy family in the area. “She worked for them and I worked for her” Ray says with a laugh. She remembers those years after college as happy times.
Ray’s sister went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Emporia State University and her father worried that Aulene didn’t have enough education to “make it” in the world on her own. He often asked if she’d like to have a career, suggesting she should do something other than work with her mom, possibly continue her schooling as her sister had done.
With the nudge from her father, Ray applied and was hired as an elementary school teacher. She quickly decided teaching wasn’t for her. When asked why not, Ray laughs, “There wasn’t enough money to get me to teach those unruly kids.” She chose instead to study cosmetology with a friend and then moved to Wichita, to work in the salon her friend’s father had built for them.
While in her second “career,” Ray was introduced to her friend’s cousin, Artice. “You know how people say ‘There’s someone I want you to meet’? You roll your eyes and try to put it off.” She pauses, tilts her head and smiles reflectively, “but this one worked out.” Shortly after they wed, Artice left to fight in WWII. Ray says she was blessed that he returned. Many servicemen (and women) did not. The couple had three sons and a daughter and remained happily married until Artice died in 1975.
When the children were young, Ray stayed home with them, “Mothering was my job then.” But as soon as they were all in school, she went back to work outside the home. She worked over 40 years for Montgomery Ward until they closed in 2000.
One might think that a woman in her 80s would take the store closing as a sign to retire … but not Aulene Ray. She went right to work at Sears and stayed there until they closed in 2018. She was 98 years young.
Even in retirement, Ray stays busy. She is active in her church, St. Matthew CME, and sometimes still plays the piano there. She likes to keep up with current events, including the Black Lives Matter protests around the country.
“Growing up in Lexington, there was segregation; separate churches, separate schools, that sort of thing. You could probably go in and sit down at a café … but you may or may not get served.” Still, Ray remembers Lexington as a nice place to live. She says people treated her family well and she always felt comfortable. “My dad worked in the mines and was a custodian at a school. He also was a party worker with the Republicans.” Because so many people knew her father from his varied work, she feels they were looked up to by Black families in the community and were even respected by Whites.
All four of Ray’s children graduated college, her oldest son continuing the legacy of her sister at Emporia State. Now their children and grandchildren are continuing the legacy of education. She makes sure they understand how people sacrificed for them to attend. “These kids today have so much [given to them], going to college to them is just a fad, something else to do. I wish they would devote more to developing spiritually and have a better understanding of life … that isn’t taught anymore.”
Ray will celebrate her 100th birthday on Sept. 29. “My sister is coming down [from Kansas City] to help me celebrate,” she says.