Years ago, Oakley J Ray was walking down the hallway of the old Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors’ Center, glancing at historic photographs of the temple’s construction and gatherings for its Oct. 23, 1927, dedication. He paused at one photo showing a large group of Latter-day Saints — some seated, many standing — on the grounds beyond the temple’s northwest corner and carefully eyed a young boy wearing a white shirt and overalls, standing behind a small, palm-like bush near the front of the photographed crowd.
“That little boy outside there is me,” he remembers saying after recognizing himself in the photo.
Ray, now 101 years old, can recall attending the 1927 dedication of what was then called the Arizona Temple, if not specific details of the event — mind you, it was more than 94 years ago. However, he does remember going to the dedication with his parents and siblings from their small farm in Gilbert, Arizona.
That dedication day is etched in colorized copies of photos that Ray and his posterity have preserved — the large gathering of leaders and Church members just beyond the Arizona Temple as well as of him, his father and his siblings together for a snapshot before heading off to the dedication.
And, yes, in that second photo, young Oakley stands front and center with his father, Sims Ray, and four siblings — and wearing a white shirt, overalls and a wide grin.
Of the dedication-day photo outside the temple, “There isn’t any question, that was me,” said Ray in a recent interview with the Church News.
Few can say they attended a temple dedication and are looking forward to attending the same renovated temple’s rededication decades later. But Ray is among the handful of Phoenix-area Latter-day Saint centenarians who can qualify for such a claim.
In fact, Ray was all set to return to the same approximate location on the temple grounds just prior to the start of the Mesa Arizona Temple’s open house, leading up to the temple’s Dec. 12 rededication. He had agreed to meet up there with the Church News for a photo shoot and brief interview to talk about a lifetime of memories, particularly of a temple-centered life.
But the day before, Ray fell at home and broke his leg, requiring surgery to reset the bone with a stabilizing rod and then hospitalization with COVID-19 pandemic precautions limiting visitors.
After a brief stay at a local rehabilitation care center, he is back in his Mesa home — and looking forward to returning to the temple on Dec. 12, when President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, rededicates the Mesa Arizona Temple.
“I have every hope that I’ll be there — I don’t’ think I’ll have any problem if I can get invited to be at the dedication,” he said.
Ray is a member of the — for him, ironically named — Centennial Ward of the Mesa Arizona North Stake. Bishop Jeffrey Richards has known Ray — whom he calls “wonderful” and “funny” — since the former was a young Scout and the latter was the Scoutmaster.
“He’s just the same today as he was back then,” laughed Bishop Richards, “but he wouldn’t be chasing the Scouts around as much today.”
Added the bishop of Ray: “If you ever wanted to be like a person, he’d be the one.”
Oakley J Ray was born July 27, 1920, in Gilbert to Sims F. Ray and Nellie Ellsworth Ray. The family lived on a small farm with alfalfa and cotton the cash crops, along with the milk from 15-20 cows that was sold to a creamery in nearby Tempe. A move to a Mesa farm came just before the Great Depression, which forced the family to live several years in Wickenburg — more than 60 miles to the northwest — where Sims Ray could get work with road construction projects.
In Wickenburg, Oakley Ray learned the sport of basketball, excelling at Mesa High once the family returned to the valley and then earning a basketball scholarship to Arizona State Teachers College — later Arizona State University.
“Learning to play basketball carried me through so that I didn’t have to pay a dime for my education,” he said. “With the standard of living we had at home, I probably never would have gone to college.”
He served as a missionary in the Central States Mission from September 1940 to August 1942 during which time the United States entered World War II. On inactive duty for a year, he continued playing basketball at ASTC and met Janet Andersen in March 1943. They were married in the Arizona Temple on May 30, 1944, after he had received his officer’s commission in the U.S. Navy and during a break in his training.
Ray served as disbursing officer, ultimately on the U.S. Estes, an amphibious force flagship. Pacific theater action for the floating command post included involvement at Iwo Jima and Okinawa before Ray was ultimately discharged.
He received a certified public accountant certification and later a law degree from the University of Arizona before starting a home construction company in 1954 — Ray Quality Homes, with “A House for Your Lot” as a slogan. He retired in 1987.
His Church service in ward and stake callings included bishop of the Mesa 1st Ward, where he was serving at the first rededication of the Mesa Arizona Temple in 1975 by Arizona native son President Spencer W. Kimball.
Oakley and Janet Ray raised two sons and eight daughters, with two additional daughters dying in infancy. All 10 children were married in the same Mesa temple as their parents.
One of Ray’s favorite family photos was taken when his last daughter was married. “In front of the temple, we took a picture of all of our children with their mates — all who had been married there in the temple for time and all eternity. And I said, ‘Now I can go on a mission’ — and that was the best time of our lives.”
The Rays then served five missions — in England, Nigeria, Florida and Texas and at Martin’s Cove, Wyoming. After nearly 70 years of marriage, Janet Ray passed away in 2013 — and her husband underscored the blessings of a sealing ordinance.
“It was always our tie to our life before mortality and the life after,” he said.
The temple serves as “the connection between me and the hereafter,” he continued. “Without the temple, I wouldn’t have any connection between me, the life before and the life after.”
Last year, Ray celebrated his 100th birthday, surrounded by 400 of his posterity.
He remains mentally sharp and physically independent, the recent leg injury notwithstanding. “About the only mental problem is remembering my passwords,” he quipped.
Ray chuckles when asked if he’ll be ready and waiting for another possible Mesa temple renovation and rededication four or five decades down the road. “I keep telling the Lord I’m ready — ‘What do You want me to do?’”
And what would Oakley J Ray say if he could go back in time and tell something to his 7-year-old self, standing outside the Arizona Temple on Oct. 23, 1927?
“I’d tell him that he was beginning right — and how happy he still is today.”