It was a freak accident that took the life of Ray Earp, one of Johnston Countys leading residents, on Aug. 6. It was just after dinner, and Ray and his wife, Nancy, were out cutting the lawn, just like he had done for most of his 64 years of living in that beautiful brick house on the knoll near the intersection of highways 42 and 96.
The weight of the mower shifted, flipping and crushing Ray to death. It was a sudden accident that took his life and sent shockwaves through the community and across the county. Johnston County leaders, including the sheriff, clerk of court, registrar of deeds and county commissioners, gathered at the house to pay respects. Volunteer firemen, local farmers and regular townfolk from Selma, Smithfield and Clayton showed up too. That was a testament to his life, his work, his love.
While Rays life was cut short, it was a life well lived.
The Earps have been a part of the Thanksgiving community since the Great Depression, when Rays father, a doctor, built his home and farm there. Calvin Perry, my 10th-grade history teacher at Clayton High School, enjoyed telling the story of how he, as a young boy during the Great Depression, watched Carolina Power & Light crews run power lines to the house. Mr. Perry marveled at the fact that Dr. Earp laid the groundwork for the entire neighborhood to get electrical and telephone service.
I really got to know Ray when I was in the newspaper business in Clayton. Ray Earp was a vocal advocate for education investment and new school construction. He worked diligently to help his longtime friends, Dr. Dicky Parrish, a Selma dentist, and Smithfield attorney Gordon Woodruff, get elected to the Johnston County Board of Education.
Ray Earp fought hard behind the scenes to make sure county leaders understood the vital importance of funding new school construction and putting more county resources into classroom teachers.
Ray wasnt afraid of the uphill fight that went on during the late 1980s and early 1990s; he was committed to improving our schools because he could see the changes that were coming to the county.
Ray liked to call himself a gentleman farmer, but in reality, he was a sharp businessman with a savvy financial acumen. Ray came off as just one of the guys, humble and polite, but he was a real leader in a demonstrative manner, and other people enjoyed his company. He was the type of leader who was subtle, but you could always learn something when you talked with him.
For nearly 20 years, Ray was chief of the Thanksgiving Volunteer Fire Department. Countless times people would talk about Ray driving his old gray and white SUV with his four-way flashers on, rushing to the fire station to roll out the pumper-engine and water truck to help a neighbor in a time of need.
You really never wanted to miss one of the fire departments barbecue chicken dinners. Ray spent hours selling tickets and then directing cooking operations. For Ray, it was about making sure the department had the equipment and funding it needed to help protect and serve the community.
That unselfishness was seen when the Raleigh Jaycees called Ray asking to use his property at Brookhill Farm in Clayton. The farm is perhaps the single largest track of undeveloped property just north of town. Beautiful rolling hills served as the backdrop for the Brookhill Steeple Chase, which was held on the land for numerous years to benefit the N.C. Burn Center and other Jaycee charities. Ray spent his own money and time to make sure the grounds were perfect so thousands of people he didnt even know could spend a lovely day at the horse races.
A few years ago, Ray received a heart-transplant that gave him a new lease on life and a new perspective about living. The last time we talked on the telephone, we talked about how important friends are and how grateful we should all be about the time we have together.
Ray Earp loved his family. He loved his community. He adored his friends and lived a life showing everyone he touched that you can be busy, you can be successful and still make time to give back, to help people, to show them you care, to listen to them and show them respect, admiration and love.
Ray Earp has left us, but his mark in Johnston County is long and deep. He lived a life of love and laughs, hugs and cries, showing everyone who knew him that he understood an important creed that loving another person is seeing the face of God.
Brad Crone was publisher of the Clayton Star before it merged with the Clayton News to become the Clayton News-Star.