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Well-known official Fox was giant in SW Kansas sports

Published 1/7/2014

By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

Anyone, and everyone — from students, athletes, colleagues, family and friends — would tell you that the Rule of Life for Ray Fox was written by those sports in which he officiated.

They were his Bible, and his guidelines for being tough, but always fair and compassionate.

Those were some of the memories shared by those who knew Fox best.

Fox, 78, died of emphysema Saturday at St. Catherine Hospital, following a lengthy battle with COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"As with anything, Dad was fighting the disease all the way to the end," said Fox's son, Scott, who is in the Air Force and resides in Cheyenne, Wyo. "He had been battling it for some time."

Longtime friend Kaye Pearce, retired executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association, was perhaps as close to Fox as anybody, having grown up with him in Salina. Pearce was a teammate with Fox through junior high, high school and at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina.

"People called him Sarge, and it was certainly appropriate because Ray always was going to do things by the book," Pearce said Monday from his home in Pea Ridge, Ark. "We played football and basketball together, and then later I had him involved with us as an official for those sports and track and field. He was just the best. Always fair, always by the rules."

If anything, Pearce said Fox strove for consistency.

"He was always trying to learn and become better at it," Pearce said. "Then, he was into the teaching of other officials, so he was able to influence another generation of officials in southwest Kansas."

Steve Lehning of Sublette got his start in high school officiating in the early 1980s, and his first football game in the black and white-striped uniform was with Fox, Bryce Roderick and Willie Nieman, when Liberal was hosting an opponent from Oklahoma.

"I made a call right before halftime and I was the line judge," Lehning recalled. "I thought I made the right call, but being a first-timer, I wasn't so sure. When we went into the dressing room at halftime, I asked Ray if he thought I had made the right call."

Lehning said Fox proceeded to get front and center with him and expressly told him that it was Lehning's job to make the call, not for the others to second-guess.

"He said, 'you make the call, you believe in the call, and you sell the call," Lehning said of that moment. "From then on, I think I never asked for another opinion. It was a great learning tool for me."

Lehning became a regular on Fox's crew, and the memories are many.

"He always had the best interest of the kids at heart," Lehning said. "There would be a lot of people out there who might not believe that. He was tough, but he was always fair. He was a pillar in the community of officials. He was a role model to younger officials. He was a good teacher as far as I'm concerned. He was an ambassador for track and was a great influence on young people."

Stewart Nelson, who first met Fox when he was a student at Garden City High School, said after graduating from college and returning to his hometown, it was Fox who got him involved with basketball officiating.

"Back then, it was a two-man crew," Nelson, whose brother, Mark, also worked on the crew, said. "When you worked with Ray, you knew things were going to stay under control. You always felt comfortable. The game was never going to get away from you."

Nelson and Fox donned their basketball stripes and worked together for 23 years, making many trips across southwest Kansas and to state tournaments.

"Everybody in western Kansas knew Ray," Nelson said. "They either loved him, or hated him, and that was mostly because they only saw him as an official. I'm sure not everybody thought he was fair. But based upon what we did, the invitations we had to officiate at some big tournaments, I'd say people thought we were pretty successful."

Nelson said it wasn't unusual in the later years for Fox to be watching basketball on television. He might see a call, and he would simply get his rule book out and see what was right.

"You never wanted to dispute Ray," Nelson said. "He was 99 percent of the time right. More importantly than the games themselves, I'll remember the trips we made. The camaraderie. We always had a good time."

Martin Segovia, a former Garden City High School athlete and now athletic director at the school, said Fox was the guy he went to in his first year as the AD to help him with hosting the Garden City Invitational track meet.

"He knew his stuff about track," Segovia said. "Nothing escaped him. He was extremely knowledgeable. He had a good mind and had great passion for the sport. He held you accountable, but he always wanted to get the most out of everyone."

Fox served as a track starter when Segovia was competing at GCHS in the late 1980s.

"With Mr. Fox, you didn't mess around," Segovia said. "He kept you honest. He will be missed by a lot of people. He was a great influence on many young people."

And if there's any doubt that Fox's influence was not great, then one only has to look at his three sons — Scott, a Colonel in the Air Force; David of Reno, Nev., who serves as the director of football administration at the University of Nevada-Reno; and Mark, who is the head men's basketball coach at the University of Georgia.

"Dad kept up with everything we did and enjoyed our successes and suffered our setbacks," Scott said Monday from the family home in Garden City. "One thing about Dad, if he came to one of our games, he always wore a coat and tie. He was old-school. He taught us to do everything right every time. He always told it like it was, and never shied away from telling it exactly like it was."

Scott said in the waning days of his dad's life, Fox worried about his funeral being on a day that a game might be contested.

"He wanted to make sure there was no conflicts," Scott said with a laugh. "But that was him. If there was a conflict between his funeral and a game, he'd tell you to go to the game."

For Mark, the memories are vivid from the time he was a youngster, when he hopped in the car and rode to basketball games with his dad and the other crew members.

"I think the thing that is great about Dad, is that first he played sports, then he coached and then he officiated," Mark said in a telephone interview from Athens, Ga. "He held that role with a unique value in the game. He always knew that players were gonna make mistakes. But he always said that he was getting paid to get it right."

Mark recalled times when he would sit in the stands and listen to people insult his dad.

"That's the nature of being an official," Mark said. "He just tried to make sure he was being fair. It's a hard, tough job. People would be rooting for their teams and scream at him. But the rides were fun, and I remember the camaraderie of the officials. My dad believed there's a right way to do things.

"He believed in an honest day's work and an honest day's effort. He wanted to help young people and to help them be good adults. He cared about everyone else. He never wanted it to be about him. He loved the community and loved southwest Kansas."

And while friends like Pearce had the nickname "Sarge" on the tip of their tongue, it was son Scott who perhaps summed up Fox best.

"He looked rough on the outside, but the grandkids called him 'Sugar Ray.' He was soft on the inside," Scott said. "He was a great dad from day one."

Fox is survived by his wife of 54 years, Ruth Elaine; his three sons; two sisters, Kay Soderberg of Salina and Ann Newton of Tampa, Fla.; four grandchildren, Matthew and Alex Fox of Laramie, Wyo., and Parker and Olivia Fox of Athens.

A memorial service was to be held at 5 p.m. today at First United Methodist Church.

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The Ray Fox profile

Born: Salina, Jan. 5, 1935

High School: Salina High School (1953); starred in football, basketball and track.

College: Kansas Wesleyan University (1958); starred in football, basketball and track. He is in the KWU Hall of Fame, both as an individual and as a member of the Coyotes football team.

Education/Teaching/Coaching Career (Years Approx.)

1959-1963: North Platte (Neb.) High School. Taught civics, economics, social studies. Assistant boys' basketball coach, volunteered with football, track.

1963-1967: Ellsworth High School. Taught civics and economics. Head boys' basketball coach; assistant football and track coach.

1967-1972: Medicine Lodge High School. School counselor and head girls' track coach.

1972-1977: High school counselor.

Garden City Community College: assistant football coach to George Walstead, Mo Cotter and Fayne Henson. Helped Wayne Staagard with track.

Garden City AAU Junior Olympic Track Team: Started the organization for Garden City/area youth. Coached youth who competed at every level, including several national champions.

Officiating: Football, basketball and track starter for more than 30 years. Officiated at the Scott City Invitational, High Plains Tournament, the Dodge City Tournament of Champions and numerous regional and state football and basketball championships.

Personal: After retiring from education, Fox started a successful construction business as an independent contractor. He was a master woodworker.

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