(In the name of full disclosure, Ray Ackerman, who passed away this morning at the age of 90, was my Uncle and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him all my life. I think he called me “Tiger” until I was in my late 20s. I’m also pretty sure I was his favorite nephew!~)
As one who makes his living (as it is) with words, it’s incredibly frustrating when, while trying to express the love and respect I have for a guy like Ray Ackerman, the best word I can come up with is “big.” But, as I struggled for the right words to honor his mark on this world, I realized that simple, three letter word was the perfect adjective for just about every part of the man’s life.
First off, lets start with the obvious; Ray Ackerman was physically big. I believe he told me he went about 6’4″ and to a little kid, he looked even taller. Mix in his Mad Men era wardrobe and/or the all black Western ensembles he wore in the 70s when the agency had the Nocona and Resistol accounts, and the man just towered.
Then there was his huge personality. If you met Ray Ackerman once, you never had trouble finding him in any room again. His deep voice and distinctive, engaging laugh made him instantly recognizable and immediately unforgettable.
At the same time, his singing voice, though maybe not always on key, was equally as recognizable. When I was a younger non-poet, serving as an altar boy at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, I never had any trouble figuring out if Uncle Ray was in the congregation. And I seldom needed more than the first hymn to find where he was sitting from my spot on the altar. (I knew I could also count on a critique from him at the end of mass too!)
In my eyes, Ray Ackerman was also the embodiment of The Greatest Generation. My God, did the man lead a big life. Grew up in Pittsburgh, flew for the Navy in World War II, learned how to fly on a Stearman biplane, took off from and landed on aircraft carriers, and ultimately flew jets. (Somewhere in the 50’s, when his wingman accidentally cut off his wing, he also ejected from a jet.) Stayed in the Navy Reserve and became a Rear Admiral. Came to Oklahoma City after the war with two suits and his childhood Lionel train set. Met the girl he would marry and raised six kids. Bought a small advertising agency that ultimately turned into one of the largest in the southwest.
Needless to say, Ray wasn’t afraid to dream big for his adopted hometown of Oklahoma City. He wrote a book called Tomorrow Belongs To Oklahoma…in 1964! He was on more civic boards than I can count and would always tell you about what was new in Oklahoma City. He also wasn’t shy about giving back, as I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many museums or charitable endeavors in OKC that don’t have his name on the wall as a contributor.
Ray was the guy who saw what the potential of the North Canadian River though town could be. Coming from Pittsburgh, the city of three rivers, he came to be known as Old Man River and, today, the Oklahoma River is a beehive of activity and shining tribute to his vision. And, his bigger than life statue sits right next to the sparkling river he always promoted.
Finally, he just lived big. He drove a big car. He and Aunt Lou always had big parties and picnics with family and friends. He had a big family that lived in a huge house by a lake, with one wall that was a gigantic window looking out on the lake. At Christmas time, he would special order an equally big, live Christmas tree to put up in that window, with that Lionel train from his youth circling below (mix in the tinsel, the carpet, and the dry air, and that tree was also always good for a big static shock too). And when he and Aunt Lou moved to a smaller house after all the kids left home, it too had a cathedral ceiling and I always teased that he’d bought that house just so he could continue buying those huge Christmas trees.
On that Christmas tree, he had an ornament that was a blinking movie theater with It’s A Wonderful Life on the marquee. And it’s the last line of that movie that, when applied to my Uncle, provides a fitting summation of the man…
To Ray Ackerman, the biggest man in town!