Ray Sargent and his grandson River.

An Untold Life: Ray Sargent

By Maggie Nicholson

Ray Sargent was a boy during the Great Depression. He lived on the yellow fields of a dairy farm in Tacoma, Washington. He and his mother moved to the farm, run by his grandparents, after Ray's father left the family. Ray's mother was named Josephine. Everyone called her Josie. She went to work in the city. Ray helped out on the farm alongside his many uncles and grandfather.

Ray was interested in the cars that careened over dirt roads, chased by wakes of dust. He was a child when the Ford Model T was chugging along through the streets. Josie and Ray were very close. She raised him, and when she grew older, he took care of her.

Ray's life creed was short and honest: "Ain't bad unless you make up your mind." His clouds were silver through and through. Ray pocketed his childhood friends and carried them the whole way through his life, collecting others along the way. He went to Bellarmine High School in Tacoma and then to Bates Technical College, where he trained to be a mechanic. He served for a time as a mechanic in the war, and then landed a career at RW Rhine Demolition.

Everything was funny to Ray. If he had a story about a car breaking down or losing money, it was still funny because 'ain't bad unless you make up your mind.' Ray wore faded jeans and t-shirts. New clothes came mostly from friends and family members on special events. He didn't like to spend money on himself. It fed his heart to help other people, and he was always giving money away. He drove the same beat-up truck for years.

Ray met Patti Mertz at a dance. They married when he was forty and two years later adopted a daughter, Terrilyn. As a toddler, Terrilyn called out to Ray every night. It was always in the middle of the night, and he always came for her. "Let's go look for the moon!" she'd cry. "Let's find it!" Each night, despite the hour, he'd hunt for the moon with his little girl. The moon, a white stone dipped in murky night water, was always hanging around, waiting to be found by their outstretched fingers.

Ray and Patti divorced when Terrilyn was three, and Terrilyn went to live with her mother. When she was old enough, she decided to live with Ray. He was lenient and even a little naughty, sometimes buying cigarettes for her.

Ray liked to watch television. He watched the History Channel and news stations. He was very invested in political conversation. Everything with Ray was a joke, except politics. He had dogs throughout his life. He had one dog, named King, that he said ‘liked to SNL.’ "SNL?" people would ask. "Sniff and loiter," he'd respond, smirking.

His daughter Terrilyn had two sons: River and Evan. Ray called them "Oskosh," after the baby clothes brand. When Evan was young, Ray was a father figure. He taught Evan that the crows hanging around on Seattle's blackberry brambles and telephone wires were actually black chickens. "Wack chickens," Ray would say and laugh.

Evan learned all about cars from Ray. River, who was very young while Ray was getting older, wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. When Ray was nearing the end of his life, Evan moved into Ray's side of the shared duplex. He helped Ray with tasks and made him feel less afraid in his final days. Patti, Ray’s ex-wife, came to West Seattle and also helped care for him.

After Ray retired from working as a mechanic, he moved to West Seattle to be near his daughter Terrilyn. The entire time he lived in West Seattle, he and his daughter either occupied the same home, a shared duplex or houses on the same street. Terrilyn's friends became Ray's friends. They called him Papa Ray. He was invited to every birthday and holiday party.

Ray loved to go out to eat. He frequented the Charleston Street Cafe and Luna Park. When the Charleston Street Cafe closed, he became a regular at Luna Park. He'd sit at the counter and order a waffle breakfast. He'd tell stories to the cooks and waitresses, and also to other regulars at the cafe. Soon he was beloved not only by the staff but by other customers there too, who would plan to come when they knew he would be there. Ray was eager to hear other people’s stories.

The Luna Park staff often joked around with him. Once, after Ray ordered dessert, his waitress brought him a big dish of ice cream coated with black plastic flies. Ray scooped out the flies, one by one, with his shining metal spoon and ate the whole dish of ice cream, grinning.

In 2011, Ray had a heart attack as he was leaving Luna Park. There were police officers present and they immediately performed CPR. He was taken to the hospital and put into a medically induced coma. The medical staff told Terrilyn and River there was a strong possibility Ray would have brain damage. He hadn't had sinus rhythm for twenty full minutes. While they were in his hospital room, Terrilyn and River watched as Ray slowly awoke. There were small movements in his fingers and limbs, like water rippling. The nurse asked Terrilyn and River to leave the room while they privately assessed if Ray could breathe on his own.

"Your daughter and grandson are here waiting for you," the doctor said as Ray opened his eyes.

He opened his mouth to speak. His voice was raspy and new.

"Tell them I died," he said, grinning.

When Ray was diagnosed with cancer, the Luna Park staff held a party for him. Everyone Ray knew had a story to tell about him. ‘I had my hand on his heart as he passed,’ writes Terrilyn after Ray’s death in August of 2012. ‘I felt his last breath and it was an inhale.’

An Untold Life is a feature of the West Seattle Herald/White Center News telling stories about people who have passed away, but who, in their lives, made a positive difference in many others. If you have suggestions for people whose lives you believe deserve a story, contact Maggie Nicholson at maggie.m.nicholson@gmail.com .

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