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Total package: Former Warrior won in each of life's arenas

Published: Sunday, June 23, 2013 10:02 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, June 24, 2013 11:00 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com)
Ray Kenaga, a member of the Sterling High School Class of 1950, is also a member of the school's athletics Hall of Fame.
Caption
(Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com)
Sterling High School graduates Pete Dillon (left) and Clifford Garriott remove Ray Kenaga’s memorabilia from a box his widow, Louise, sent to them after his death. Kenega (below) graduated in 1950 and is a member of the school’s Hall of Fame.

Clifford Garriott's face lit up like a child's on Christmas morning. He let out an exuberant, "Here we go," before he and fellow Sterling High School alumnus Pete Dillon tore the packing paper away from a treasure trove of memories.

The bounty had a common thread – the extraordinary man who tied the entire SHS Class of 1950 together before going on to star at the University of Michigan, the American Seating Co. and virtually every other aspect of life he touched.

There was a keepsake, be it a photo, a Hall of Fame plaque, jump wings or a commendation, that captured each resounding victory of Ray "Red" Kenaga, who passed away April 8 in Michigan.

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If it wasn't for that box, the melting pot of personalities that attended his funeral might never have known the exemplary athlete Kenaga was. In fact, it wasn't until the love of Kenaga's life, Louise, put together the box that she found out he was an All-American football player in high school.

Garriott and Dillon got through about two-thirds of the box's contents – which covered more than half of the massive conference table at the Sterling Schools Foundation building – when Garriott flopped into a chair, visibly exhausted.

"Is that enough? I can keep going, but ... " Garriott said. "It brings back a lot of memories, seeing all the guys, ... and I'm kind of sentimental, anyway."

The accolades and Polaroids made Garriott wish he'd seen more of Kenaga after high school graduation. But one of his fondest memories is the arrival of his first child the night of one of Kenaga's visits home. And, truth be told, aside from class reunions, folks in Sterling had a hard time keeping up with Kenaga.

"He was a busy man," Dillon said. "He undoubtedly was a workaholic."

Winning is fun

There was no need for a timeout, Garriott remembers. Sterling was steadily moving the ball down the football field, as was the case virtually every Friday night, when Kenaga called for time.

"Everybody said, 'Why, Ray? Why did you call a timeout?'" Garriott said. "He said, 'I just want to watch the fireworks.'"

That was standard behavior for Kenaga. His teams almost always won. But they had an awful lot of fun in the process.

"He was always playful, but very business-oriented," Dillon said. "He was good at what he did. The bus trips were a lot of fun."

Kenaga was a member of Sterling's first Sweet 16 basketball team, and an innovator of the two-handed set shot. He placed second at state in the pole vault and spearheaded four consecutive conference and district titles in track. And he hit .677 for the baseball team in 1950. After a stint at the University of Illinois, he excelled in all three of those sports at the University of Michigan.

Within the aforementioned box was another, about the size you'd need to hold Paul Bunyan's boots.

"Hands off: This means you – RK," Garriott read on the cover of the box. "It's love letters, probably."

They were love letters, all right – from colleges wanting to recruit one of the brightest teen athletes in the nation.

While earning his Bachelor of Science degree in Ann Arbor, Kenaga was commissioned a second lieutenant by the university's ROTC detachment. He'd earn his jump wings, serve as a first lieutenant in Germany, and even coach a dominant football team, the Bamberg Rams.

"I'll betcha while he was coaching that team he wanted to play so bad," Garriott said. "They won first place wherever they played."

Garriott is convinced that, if there was a prep state football tournament in Illinois, no one would have been able to touch the 1950 Golden Warriors and Kenaga, their leader in the backfield.

They outscored their opponents 255-69 in 1950, which included three shutouts and a game in which they held their opponent to minus-27 total offensive yards.

"That was the kind of high school football team we had – we were outstanding," Garriott said. "There's no doubt in my mind that, if they had a state football playoffs that year, ... nobody even touched us.

"But we had a team that had fun out there. I think that was the key."

Deux joie de vivre

Kenaga fell in love twice in a very short period of time. While breaking into his career with American Seating, he also broke ground on his relationship with Louise Willetts, the company vice president's secretary.

Both ventures would result in love affairs beyond compare.

Louise was taken with Ray's "wonderful head of auburn hair" and his infectious personality. While she included one of his letter sweaters in the box she sent to Dillon and Garriott, she cherishes a photo of Ray in that blue and maize garment, his hands casually folded.

The couple took in dinner and a show around Thanksgiving of 1957 and, in less than 3 months, were engaged to be married. Louise wore the rock – which Ray procured from a member of a diamond club he befriended overseas – on a necklace around her neck until May, when Ray received an assignment to New York.

In July, Louise began preparations to be married at Westminster Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"When the minister asked who I was marrying, I said, 'I don't think you'd know him. He's from Illinois. It's Ray Kenaga,'" Louise said, "and he said, 'You mean Red Kenaga?'"

That would become a theme in Ray's life, as virtually everywhere he went, he left with a handful of new friendships.

He and Louise loved to play tennis and travel. Good thing, as Ray's job would take him all over the globe. The Caribbean was part of his territory when be began working in the auditorium, theater and stadium market, and it was one of their favorite destinations.

But Kenaga was ecstatic wherever he went.

"He had the perfect job," Dillon added. "He loved athletics, he loved the University of Michigan, and he was able to hobknob with all the important people in sports in the country. His job was to entertain these people and to sell seats."

Among those seats are those at Soldier Field, the Metrodome and the recently revamped Sterling Auditorium. His exemplary work earned him the Stadium Managers Association Lifetime Achievement Award.

Kenaga worked 45 years for the company and retired at age 71. In his 2000 entry in the primer for the Sterling class reunion, he wrote, "Retirement? Maybe one of these years!"

True to his word, he might have retired in 2002, but 2 weeks later, a major competitor asked him to serve as a consultant. Kenaga jumped at the opportunity and worked on his last – and perhaps most unique – job.

"It just blew my mind, because he explained the football field was outside the multi-purpose stadium," Louise said. "After the game, the field was moved out of the stadium, and the facility was used for other purposes."

Quite the walkoff shot, capping an extraordinary labor of love.

"It was his life," Louise said. "He loved working on the professional sports field. He loved the variety and everyone, from the architects and project managers, engineers and owners to Philip Johnson."

That's the same Philip Johnson who designed the Seagrams Building and the restaurant at the Four Seasons.

Always moving forward

It didn't matter who Kenaga rubbed elbows with; he never gloated.

As he built business relationships, he refused to be the one to bring up his celebrated athletic career.

"Ray was one who moved on. He didn't dwell in the past," Louise said. "So many people said they didn't realize he was such an outstanding athlete in his youth. He never talked about it. Even in later years, when I'd mention he played for Michigan, Ray would try to hush me up. He'd moved on."

On the flip side, while he was changing the face of seating and his wife held three jobs, including one on Wall Street, Kenaga attended class reunions in Sterling only to catch up with old friends.

Louise still knows the Sterling ZIP code from the myriad letters she sent to his parents, whom she also adored. She, of course, also has a big place in her heart for her brother-in-law, Jay.

She says the brothers were very different, Ray resembling their father, Jay resembling their mother, but both were outstanding in their fields.

"While Ray was working on the football field, Jay was working on his stamp collection," Louise said.

A fond farewell

Kenaga made it back to Sterling for every Class of 1950 reunion, except for its 60th.

Dillon drove to Ada, Mich., to pick up Kenaga and bring him back to Sterling. But the cruel hand of Alzheimer's had already taken hold, even if it hadn't revealed itself when the Kenagas and Dillon had dinner the night before they were to head back to Sterling.

But Louise let Dillon know about 5 o'clock the next morning that Ray had taken ill. Dillon and Kenaga chatted before Dillon left, although there wasn't a whole lot said.

"But I knew how he felt, and he knew how I felt," Dillon remembered. "He didn't want to talk about it too much. He was really broken up about it."

"The idea of making that trip back and seeing all those people he knew when he was younger and not being anything like he was then – he realized his age and condition – the idea overwhelmed him in a negative way," Louise said. "It would have been a very physical trip and a very emotional one."

About 2 years later, Kenaga passed away. Louise will tell you there's no way to prepare for losing the love of your life, but she immediately focused on saying goodbye publicly.

"It didn't break me up," she said. "I had a job to do and a memorial service to get ready for."

And it was a glorious reflection of Kenaga's life and mantra of playing hard, but having fun doing it.

His Sterling classmate and fellow standout, Roger Puterbaugh, provided some levity.

"He said he thought he knew Ray better than anybody else," Louise said, "because after all, he had taken more than 300 showers with Ray."

David O'Neal, who along with his wife, Ginny, referred to Ray as "Papa Bear," moved the audience as he spoke, talking about Kenaga's indomitable spirit and how significantly he affected his colleagues' lives.

"The warrior is a formidable adversary. He may not always win, but he is never defeated," O'Neal said to the congregation. "The warrior learns from not winning; he constantly studies, analyzes, strategizes.

"This discipline and methodology no doubt came from Ray's upbringing and his background in sports – it was part of his DNA, his being."

Then O'Neal shared the most important lessons he learned from "the Warrior."

"Work hard, ... be honest, ... enjoy life with a few close friends, ... own dogs," O'Neal said. "Surround yourself with beauty, serenity and the love of a lifelong companion."

Few have lived life to their own letters the way Kenaga did.

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