Thelma Sutton Ray, 82, and Johnnie Clifton Ray, 88, of Oxford, Mississippi, who devoted their lives to each other for nearly 65 years, passed away peacefully within 24 hours of each other, on Thursday, June 13 and Friday, June 14, 2019.
“They were inseparable as they enjoyed a full life, raising their children together and working side-by-side for 30 years at their family-owned business,” said sons Bill and Joe Ray. “They would never want to live without each other, so we take great comfort in knowing they are at peace together.”
Thelma was born on October 31, 1936, in Grand Junction, Tennessee, to the late Thelma Elaine Williams and David Campbell Sutton. She grew up in Pope, Mississippi with three brothers and a sister, who predeceased her. Johnnie was born on February 7, 1931, in Oxford, Mississippi, to the late Gertha Mae Overstreet and Ottis Woodville Ray. He grew up in Lafayette County, Mississippi in the Pine Flat community with four brothers and four sisters, all of whom predeceased him except his sister, Annie Ray Miller of Oxford.
Thelma and Johnnie met at a local dance and fell in love immediately. After just one date they were married on November 14, 1954, in Paynes, Mississippi, before moving to Scotland, where Johnnie was serving his country in the United States Air Force. He served for 20 years, with tours of duty including Prestwick, Scotland; Colorado Springs, Colorado; San Antonio, Texas; Ramstein, Germany; and Mountain Home, Idaho. Among the many medals and commendations received during his career was the Air Force Commendation Medal.
Thelma was a homemaker during Johnnie’s Air Force career, raising their two sons. Upon retirement from the Air Force in 1969, Thelma and Johnnie moved their family to Oxford, where they joined with two of Johnnie’s brothers to form Ray Brothers Auto Repair Service, Inc. Thelma and Johnnie worked together for 30 years, enjoying lunch almost every day at the Beacon Restaurant. Over the years, they bought 100% ownership of the business and operated it until they sold it in 1999 and retired. Oldest grandson William has fond memories of spending time at the shop in the summers when he visited. During their years in business, they were known for repairing the cars of countless students at Ole Miss. In fact, many of their customers in the 1990s were children of customers from the 1970s.
Thelma and Johnnie were members of St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Oxford.
Johnnie was very involved with youth sports while serving in the Air Force. He coached Little League Baseball and Youth Bowling League teams. In Oxford, he continued his involvement with youth sports by coaching American Legion Baseball and by serving on the Oxford Park Commission board for 12 years, including 11 years as Chair and Vice Chair.
The Rays’ son, Bill, remembers his dad taking him to see Mickey Mantle play in a charity golf tournament when he was nine years old. Bill said, “We were walking down one of the fairways right next to Mickey Mantle, and Dad said to him, ‘you hit that drive just like you hit a baseball in Yankee Stadium,’ to which Mantle laughed and replied, ‘I wish I could hit a baseball.’ It was one of my most memorable moments with my dad.”
Johnnie was a charter member of the Oxford Flying Club, where he introduced many children and adults to the joy of flying by taking them on their first flight in an airplane. Johnnie was a member of American Legion Post 55 in Oxford, where he served as Commander for 10 years, and he was a life member of Disabled American Veterans.
Thelma was a caring mother and grandmother who was widely known and celebrated for her perfectly fried chicken. Grandson Robert said, “When Grandmother was around you would never go hungry. She always had something for us to eat.” She and Johnnie loved fried catfish from their favorite restaurants in Abbeville, Madison, and Manchac. Thelma was also a tireless volunteer for many years with the Oxford Hospital Auxiliary.
Upon selling their business and retiring, Thelma and Johnnie moved to Lake Caroline in Madison County in 2000, where they enjoyed being near their children and grandchildren, as well as fishing from their back yard or boat. All four grandchildren have fond memories of catching either their first or biggest fish with their grandfather. “I always loved fishing with PaPaw, he taught me all the tricks to catching fish,” said grandson Tyler. Granddaughter Whitney Lehr also remembers catching lots of fish with PaPaw including one memorable afternoon when she exclaimed “PaPaw, I think I’ve got one, and I think it’s a big one!” Indeed it was, and PaPaw had the almost 8-pound largemouth bass mounted for her.
Thelma and Johnnie started showing signs of dementia in 2014 and moved to assisted living. As the disease progressed it was necessary for them to move to memory care in 2016.
Thelma passed away peacefully in Hospice Ministries in Ridgeland late in the afternoon on Thursday, June 13, 2019, and Johnnie followed 23 hours later at Baptist Hospital in Jackson. They had rarely been apart during their 64 years and 7 months of marriage.
Thelma and Johnnie are survived by their sons, William Allen Ray (Bill), and wife, Sara Smith Ray and Joseph Eugene Ray (Joe), and wife, Kathy Glueck Ray. Their grandchildren are William Allen Ray, Jr., and wife, Katherine Sloop Ray (Katie); Whitney Lehr Ray Koening, and husband, Errik- Christopher Ulrich Koening (Errik); Robert Alan Ray; and Tyler Joseph Ray. Their great grandchildren are John William Ray (Jack); George Signa Ray; and Sara-Katherine Eleonora Koening.
Immediate family will gather for a private graveside service with military honors in Oxford. Waller Funeral Home in Oxford, MS is in charge of arrangements.
The family requests memorial contributions be sent to Friends of Children’s Hospital, 3900 Lakeland Drive, Suite 205, Flowood, Mississippi 39232.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.