George Ray, who became one of the best known Northwest television personalities through more than three decades of pledge drives on KCTS, died November 23.
Ray, who battled other health issues, died weeks after a lymphoma diagnosis, his daughter said. He was 85.
With his salt-and-pepper hair and mustache, glasses and a familiar baritone, Ray was a reason thousands took his nudge to go to the phones and support KCTS.
“You’re going to like being a part of quality programming in your phone,” he said during a pledge break in the 1980s. “You are going to like being part of the Channel 9 family, and you’re going to like being able to put input into a station on various programs – whether you like them or dislike them – and you’re going to like the fact that the station is responsive to your likes and dislikes.”
In his more than 30 years at KCTS, Ray was a driving force for more than $75 million in donations. That helped make Channel 9 the fourth most watched public television station in the United States.
“He was the person who got people to support KCTS through thick and thin,” colleague Enrique Cerna said Friday. He recalled watching Ray speak at fundraising events in Washington and in Canada, and when he would get up to speak, the audiences would be drawn to him.
“They would feel connected to him, and they were willing to give money because of him,” Cerna said. “And he had that voice: The smooth, anchor-type voice.
“He was an institution.”
Ray, Northwest chef Tom Douglas once said, was to KCTS pledge drives what turkey is to Thanksgiving.
Ray was born George Earle Raubacher in 1932, the second child to Butch and Margaret (Earle) Raubacher. He was a standout high school football player in Janesville, Illinois, and had plans to play at the University of Wisconsin. But a torn right ACL in the third quarter of the North/South All Star Game called an audible on those plans.
Ray, who was a National Honor Society member in high school, still appended there on an academic scholarship and graduated with a degree in political science. It was in high school that he developed a love of history – one he would carry throughout his life.
Ray’s father was sports editor of the Janesville Gazette and later became part of both the Wisconsin Sports and Janesville Hall of Fame, and Ray followed his footsteps into reporting.
He started at WREX in Rockford, Illinois, where management encouraged the name change to Ray, then moved to WTVH in Peoria, Illinois, and later to KCHU in San Bernardino, California.
He interviewed President John F. Kennedy on Air Force One, Barry Goldwater and Ted Kennedy, among others. Covering the 1957 school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, Ray had the only one-on-one interview with then-governor Orval Faubus.
And family still have the photos from the day Ed Sullivan spent time with him at WREX.
It was in Rockford where Ray met his wife, Geraldine, who greeted guests at the station and did occasional weather reports. They had two children, Doug and Ione, before the marriage ended in 1973.
In the mid-1960s, Ray was offered a job on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. But wife Gerry didn’t like Los Angeles, so he took a job in 1964 with KOMO after Keith Jackson took the job at ABC. Jackson, now a broadcasting legend, stayed at KOMO long enough to introduce Ray to the Northwest audience.
Ray also called the Seafair Gold Cup for KIRO 7 in 1964 and took his kids to meet driver Bill Muncy, owner Bernie Little and others.
Ray worked as KOMO’s sports director until 1968 when he briefly left broadcasting. He started with KCTS in the early 1970s and worked there full time starting in 1976.
He was the face during breaks in Channel 9’s most memorable programs: Ken Burns documentaries, Masterpiece Theatre, Rick Steves travel shows and the Over Washington program and spinoffs that showed aerial views of the Northwest’s best landmarks.
In 1995, after Republicans took control of Congress, Ray showed his humor joining an “Almost Live” skit about the new PBS. The highest-level pledge gift in the skit: a copy of Over George Ray.
“It’s truly breathtaking,” said host John Keister, playing then KTCTS CEO Bernie Clark in a skit that also included actor Joel McHale.
Ray retired from KCTS in 2012, a day before his 80th birthday. In his time at KCTS, he helped raise funds to move the station from the University of Washington campus to the new building designed in the 1980s at 5th Avenue and Mercer Street.
"Few people have played as large a role in building support for public television as George has," KCTS 9 President and CEO Maurice 'Moss' Bresnahan said the day of Ray's retirement.
Ray loved KCTS, and the people loved him, Cerna said. He strongly supported the pledge drives and KCTS, knowing he was raising money for programming that wouldn’t be available anywhere else.
“He loved broadcasting, but he didn’t want to be in broadcasting in the typical way,” said daughter Ione Raubacher. “He totally believed in public broadcasting.”
KCTS Senior Producer Stephen Hegg said Ray did hours of preparation instead of using a teleprompter, studying the shows he was promoting. He could be demanding, but that was a product of his desire see public broadcasting succeed.
"He had that rare gift of being able to - in a live situation - look into the camera and connect in such a direct and intimate way with everyone on the other end," Hegg said.
In addition to his children, Ray is survived by his longtime partner, William Kimball, his daughter-in-law Roxanne Raubacher and eight grandchildren. A service is being planned for after the holidays.
When Ray was honored in the early 2000s for 25 years as the pledge host of KCTS, station staff made a montage of his highlights at the stations. And when the cameras came back to him, Ray used the opportunity to mention the financial support and to thank viewers for making KCTS programming a reality.
“We’re right up near the top in dollars raised, and that’s why we are the fourth most watched – because we have the funds to go out and get the programs for you – and that’s all because of you,” Ray said. “Thanks to my family, thank to you, thanks to everybody here at the station, to all the folks who came in to answer the telephone.
“But most of all, to those of you who time and time again have gone to the phone and answered to the appeal and called and supported us. Thank you.”
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