Niagara Gazette — What do you say when your best friend dies?
Arthur Benjamin Ray passed away last Friday.
He is my best friend.
Nearly 20 years my senior, a generation older, centuries wiser, I cannot for the life of me recall when we first met; a good friend of my parents, he probably held me when I was a baby.
Over the years, he watched me grow and when it was time, just when I needed him, he helped me grow up.
He taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons.
I can honestly say, I learned a lot by just being around him, watching, listening.
Art, or A.B. as he preferred, loved children; he loved people; he loved everybody, even those who, for whatever reason, did not fully appreciate him.
People kept him GOING in every sense of the word.
He liked to talk…to anyone, including perfect strangers, but more importantly, he liked to listen.
He knew how to politely invade your personal space; he’d lower his voice to an almost imperceptible whisper, and in moments have you bent over laughing, no matter how serious the situation.
His cherubic melodic bellows could be heard everywhere, especially his heart-felt laughter.
A.B. laughed from the heart, a reassuring passionate, caring laughter that made people believe that, no matter how grave a situation might seem at the moment, everything would be alright.
If you were out and about and looking for A.B., you need only to stand still for a moment and listen, you’d hear him in the middle of a crowded store, a church or in the halls and chambers of law and government from Albany to Washington, D.C., A.B. could be heard.
I have witnessed United States Congresspersons, senators, state officials and dignitaries from all over the world pick A.B. out of a crowd, walk over to him, shake his hand, call him by name and pay homage to him, giving him a level of respect few deserve, or will ever earn.
But in spite of his ability to mingle with the hierarchy, A.B. remained a humble, common man.
Perhaps more than anything else, A.B. was compelled to serve.
Active in his church as a Deacon, as a dedicated member of Rotary International, a long-time member of the Electric City Lodge, or President of the Black Pioneers, A.B. relished the idea of service above self; he was often the first to arrive and the last to leave any event or function that he committed to whether it was ringing the Salvation Army bells in the bitter cold, distributing dictionaries to school children or handing out bibles to anyone who needed an encouraging word, A.B. was there.
Like his father, A.B. enjoyed cooking, especially barbecuing. He was widely known in Western New York for his famous Ox roasts, pulled pork sandwiches and of course, his scrumptious, “finger lickin’ good, baby back ribs.
He told me more than once that he did it because he liked to see the joy that a good meal can bring to a person.
He loved the game of baseball, as a serious player in his younger days, and as a very serious fan when he got older. I had the honor of traveling with him to many good games in Baltimore, New York and Toronto. Once while sitting next to him in the bleachers at a Yankee game, I noticed that he was smiling contently with his eyes closed.
I nudged him and asked if he was alright, “Billy”, he said, “It doesn’t get any better than this…” I left him alone, closed my eyes and enjoyed the rest of the game.
As I have said here before, in addition to everything else, A.B. was a serious historian; few know, remember, or will ever know some of the people and real stories behind some of the most fascinating recent history of Niagara Falls the way he knew it.
Recalling Erie Avenue a few years ago, I sat down with A.B., “one of the city’s grand pioneers, a man with a memory like an elephant and a lifetime of stories he is willing to share with anyone who can afford the time it takes to listen to them.”
His uncanny ability to recall the past is a benefit of having been in various businesses here for more than 50 years, much as a tax and business consultant.
“Many of our clients today are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the clients we served way back when,” he smiled.
When I asked him about Erie Avenue, he leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and took me for an imaginary walk along the red brick street as though it was right in front of us.
A.B. noted that Erie Avenue, which ran from the end of Falls Street southeast to Buffalo Avenue south of the New York Central railroad tracks, gave a lot of people their start in business. He remembered the Busy Bee Grill, Fadel’s Service Station, the Fifty-One Club, Levy Brothers Furniture warehouse, even the Salvation Army and Otey’s Café and the New Royal Restaurant not far from the National Biscuit Company’s Shredded Wheat plant.
When I asked him what made Erie Avenue memorable, he said it was the entrepreneurial spirit of the people who lived and worked there that made it all work.
He suffered his share of tragedy, often carrying other’s burdens to the extreme, but he never complained, placing his faith in God.
Handing out “Hug Cards” that he had made up to offer to people in exchange for a warm, “therapeutic hug,” A.B. often quoted two of the plaques he kept hanging on the walls of his ever busy office.
“Keep thy shop and thy shop will keep thee” which he used as an explanation for the long hours he spent there in that office. “People expect me to be here, so here I am. You never know when or who is going to come through that door. I need to be here when they need me…” he’d say with a smile.
And the other one, “Plan your work, work your plan”. He said people can accomplish much more than they think, if they’d just take the time to decide what they want, figure out what it will take to get it done, and then actually do it”.
Most who ever had the good fortune to meet him will remember him for his pat answer to the simple question, “How are you doing, A.B.?
“Better today than yesterday” he’d quip with a twinkle in his smiling eyes.
“Better today than yesterday…”Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org