Jeff Benedict: Saying goodbye to 'most humble' man I ever knew

Published: Sunday, July 24 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

So there I was with my four children staring at this man who has made me laugh so many times. "Are you sure that's him, dad?" my daughter asked.

"Ray?" I called out.

His eyes opened. They focused. Then they welled up. It had been two years since we last saw each other. "Son," he said, pulling me close.

I got a chill. He's been calling me son for years. But this was different.

I squatted beside him and turned my ear toward his mouth. Age and illness have reduced his once booming voice to a faint whisper.

"I'm not afraid of dying," he whispered. "I'm not afraid of death."

But it was clear he was afraid of something. I could see worry all over his face.

"What are you afraid of, Ray?"

There were actually two things.

First was his legacy. Three years ago Ray retired and sold American Bookkeeping Co. It still exists today. But it no longer resembles what Ray created. It's managed differently, more like a cold business than a helping hand.

Most of his lifelong clients have gone elsewhere. He worries that this will be a bad reflection on his reputation.

Then there's his dear wife, Rose. She's 88 and lives alone now that Ray is in a care facility. Rose has her own health problems. Ray has always been there to provide for her. Now he can't.

Meantime, the medical bills mount and he no longer earns a paycheck. Nor does he have a nest egg. All those years of charging such low fees prevented him from saving for retirement. It's amazing how complicated life gets near the end.

He pulled me close again. He wanted me to know when he first took a liking to me. It happened when I was a young teenager and we attended the same church congregation in New London. Ray would have been in his 50s.

One Sunday he was asked to substitute teach the teenage Sunday School class. The task petrified him. He was a bookkeeper, not a speaker.

Worse, he forgot his lesson plan. Desperate, he asked an open-ended question in hopes of generating a discussion. No one said a word. Finally, I started talking and guided a discussion that lasted the entire class period. No one ever discovered that Ray was nervous.

"God bless you for that," Ray whispered. "I never forgot that about you."

That's the thing about Ray. He doesn't forget people. I suspect that if people knew he was in a nursing home, that facility's lobby would resemble the closing scene in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Ray Brown is a real-life George Bailey. He's rich where it counts, he's rich in friends. That's his life story.

Jeff Benedict is the author of "Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat."

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