Monday, October 14, 2013

The influence of a good man: Dr. Sammy Ray

The sad news that Dr. Sammy Ray had died reached me this afternoon. He was 94 years old, a long run for anyone. And yet my hand flew to my mouth and I gasped in surprise. I guess I just expected him to always be there.

We saw him a few summers ago at the grocery store in Galveston. He was using one of those machines to check his blood pressure. He saw Aquaman and recognized him from his time as a student at TAMUG. We didn't want to bother him, but he was glad to see us and we ended up talking to him for 30 minutes, us standing and him sitting on the bench of that blood pressure machine, cane in hand. Aquaman had some questions to ask him about oysters and the drought and water quality. Listening to him speak was like being in a library, flipping through books. I was humbled in his presence, hanging on his every word about the drought and what it meant for Texas, especially the coast. While I had come across Sammy Ray in my work with the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, I wasn't a former student like Aquaman, who still has the binder from his Aquamed class in 1990.

Yes. I said 1990.

That's Sammy Ray on the agenda - doing his thing.

Sammy Ray took the time to ask me about teaching and to tell me how important it was. He asked about Aquaman's new job and that led to another conversation about NOAA and the Fisheries Observer Program and then he told us both this:

"Find what you love to do and you'll never work another day in your life." 

It stuck with me. I wrote it down later. I've seen variations of it since, but it meant the most coming from him.

He was legendary on the Texas A&M at Galveston campus. Every time I saw him speak, he received standing ovations from the audience: conferences, meetings, lecture halls. He was brilliant, yes. But what set him apart was that he was approachable. No ivory tower syndrome there. He loved students and always found time to talk to them - to really talk to them, not just lecture. He so enjoyed his work every day that he never really retired, it was in his blood and his very being. It was who he was.

He left a legacy that our oldest son was introduced to this summer. Sammy Ray started SeaCamp, it was his baby and he nurtured it and helped it grow into what it is today. We saved and planned for a year in advance and got on the waiting list as soon as we could (Yep. There's a waiting list.) so that The Redhead could go to the session that focused on Marine Engineering.

Aquaman and I met aboard the Texas Clipper, part of TAMUG's Summer School at Sea program in the summer of 1989. Going back there with The Redhead was quite an experience.

The poster Prep Cadets were given in 1989.

With the anchor from the Texas Clipper in 2013.

Just like my dad before me, I made sure that letters arrived for The Redhead while he was there.

Of course I have Aggie stationery. Don't be ridiculous.

We didn't hear from him all week. We knew this was a good sign. When we picked him up, he was all smiles. He led us around the campus as if we'd never been there.

"There's the library," he pointed out.

"Um. Yeah. I worked there for a year," Aquaman told him.

"And there's the cafeteria," The Redhead added.

"I worked there, too," Aquaman explained.  "My dorm was that one over there and I had classes here and here," he said, pointing.

"Wow!" The Redhead had never been so interested. He continued his tour, telling us the things he had done that week. "So I really, really want to go here now," he told us. "For sure."

And that was the point - it's what Sammy Ray knew. If you got kids hooked by bringing them there and letting them learn and explore, they would stay engaged. If you encouraged their interests, it would pay off. Not just for them or you, but for the greater good.

During my time in Alaska, I learned that when a Tribal elder dies, people often say it's as if a library has burned down. All that knowledge - all the things done and seen - gone forever. It is a catastrophic loss and reason to mourn.

But in this case, because of a body of work and a lifetime dedicated to educating others, I don't think it's true. Sammy Ray may be gone, but his work will never be. That's the influence of a good man.

Well done, Sammy Ray. Well done.

Second generation Sea Aggie.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

I'm with the Band

If you don't have this album yet, go get it. 

My Junior year at boarding school, I was assigned a new roommate. We had never met before and yet we somehow instantly connected. After no time at all, we were inseparable. We stayed up late listening to music. I thought I was a music lover, but this girl - this girl - she introduced me to The Cure. She got me in the habit of falling asleep listening to music like Level 42 and Yaz and Tom Tom Club, Talking Heads and Suzanne Vega and Peter, Paul, and Mary. We would write down lyrics and obsess over their meanings and marvel at how in the world Robert Smith knew exactly how we felt at any moment in time. We would take our double cassette recorder jam boxes and splice together our favorite lines from favorite songs until it was a 30 minute collage of teenage angst. We made each other mix tapes - of course we did. She took me to my first concert at - get this - Madison Square Garden. The band was Squeeze, not that it mattered. How's that for a first concert experience?

We graduated the next year and I never saw her again. She went to college, I went to college. We talked on the phone once or twice. Then nothing until 2009 and Facebook. She could see bits and pieces of my life and I could see glimpses into hers. I wasn't sure what she'd ended up doing exactly, but I knew it was in the music business. She traveled a lot, touring with Lady GaGa, Madonna, Dave Matthews Band, Hootie & the Blowfish, Glee, and Dancing With the Stars. Her incredible knowledge of music looked like it had led her somewhere perfect for her.

We finally live near a major metroplex, so it worked out that her touring schedule this year brought her somewhere that we could actually meet up. Twenty-four years later.

She called me and left a message - her voice was lower than I remembered and she called me by my maiden name. It's kind of cool when someone does that. They knew you way back when. We met for lunch but barely ate because we couldn't stop talking. We had both been through things. Serious shit. And yet weirdly similar. It was as if no time had passed. We laughed at our ridiculously stupid younger selves. And I brought something:

High School Yearbook. 

Our yearbook from Junior year. Some of the pictures are pretty funny. Mostly because we had a lot of damn hair.

There we are. 2nd row center. Angie (l) and Me (r). Basketball.

Front row. Me (l) and Angie (r). Softball.

But here's the best part. She had signed my yearbook and it was basically a timeline of every cool thing we did that year. We read over it. Out loud. And remembered.

I dug out an old photo album and brought it along, too.

The time flew by. She was getting texts from the band and had stuff to do. She offered to set aside some tickets for me and the boys for the concert that night. Listening to her stories that afternoon, I realized just how accomplished she was in her career. She was the tour manager for major bands and she had worked hard to get there. It was so her. And while I have been to quite a few concerts in my day since my first experience at Madison Square Garden, I had never been with my children - who are now big ol' teenagers - and never had VIP access.

She met us behind the building with these:

The key to the city. For real. 
And another one.

Just for kicks.
We both realized that she had taken me to my first concert and was now taking my three boys to their first concert. How cool is that?

Second generation concert inductees.

I look ecstatic. Just another day at the office for Angie.

We got to walk around backstage before the opening band went on. We were treated like family. We had dinner sitting at the table next to the singer and bass player. They signed my album cover and photos and the guitar player's dad gave the boys signed guitar pics later.

It was too intimate to even think about taking a photo. We played it cool. We sat at a private table during the concert, next to another band member's grandparents. It was an amazing view.

Angie was able to sneak out and see us, which was awesome. But you know what was really, really, completely fantastic? To walk out of the VIP area, through the crowd, all the way up to the stage where big, burly guys are standing guard while saying, "Excuse me, excuse me," as I pushed past people looking annoyed and flashing my VIP badge and having the Security guy move aside and say, "Right this way, ma'am." That's the very definition of awesome. "Excuse me, but I'm with the band."

And this band. This band. If you don't have this album yet, go out and buy it immediately. It was released a little over a year ago and it has just exploded. Because it's musical genius, that's why. The first song I heard was "It's Time" and it's still my favorite. But "Demons" and "On Top of the World" have gotten under my skin. The whole album is terrific. Don't doubt me. And the icing on the cake? They're really nice guys.

The concert ended and we got to see all that goes in to breaking down a stage and loading things up. We walked out a back entrance where big buses were waiting for everything and everybody to drive all night to the next gig. There were fans waiting behind barriers, wondering who in the hell we were with the personal escort up close and personal where they were not allowed. It was delicious.

But re-connecting with someone who had been a very best friend when I was 16 and 17 meant even more. It is valuable to look back at where you've been to understand where you're going. Another friend of mine once told me that we are our truest selves at about 10 years old - before the world rushes in with its expectations and disappointments. So whatever you did that made you happy when you were 10? That's what you should be doing with your life. So to see that someone I had known and loved and lived with and shared so much with was doing exactly that was inspiring. And to have her encourage me in my writing and to remind me that it was what I had always wanted to do...Well, it's exactly what I needed.

Thanks, Angie, for helping me remember who I am.