From near death to the Senior Olympics

Fall 2019

Ray Schehr ’57 appears to be a typical Bellarmine alum. Overcoming tuition challenges through hard work, he was the first in his family to graduate from college, and he achieved success in a long-lasting career.

However, his activities since he became an octogenarian set him apart, including skydiving, several near-death experiences and his participation in the 2019 National Senior Olympic Games.

Life threw many obstacles in Ray’s direction. “My mother passed away when I was three months old and my grandmother took me in… my five brothers and sisters were placed in St. Joseph’s orphanage,” he remembered. “I later lived at First and Liberty Streets, which was considered a slum area.” Growing up, he was ashamed to tell anyone where he lived. “In retrospect,” he said, “it was a fantastic place to grow up and to experience life as it really was.”

Ray attended St. Boniface grade school and Flaget High School, both now closed; he earned high school tuition money by working at a supermarket in “a seedy area.”

In 1953 he entered Bellarmine College. “It was my good fortune that Bellarmine had recently opened its doors,” he said. “I could never have afforded to go to any other college. It cost me $17 a credit hour, including two mandatory hours of religion. It was still an uphill struggle. I paid every cent of my education by working part-time jobs after school and in the summer.”

Bellarmine was very small at that time, with only 85 students. There were no dorms, and all students commuted. “In my freshman year we had all our classes in Pasteur Hall while the administration building was being constructed,” Ray said. “Once we moved into the new building, with its fresh smell and pleasant classrooms, it gave us the feeling we were actually in college. Many students were poor and had to work to pay their tuition. During this era, we attended Bellarmine to study and get a degree. Because of my jobs, I was never able to participate in any clubs; however, I was a pole vaulter for the track and field team. My pole was bamboo, and I could barely wrap my hands around it. My average jump was 10 feet—laughable compared to today’s athletes.”

His most memorable teacher and advisor was Fr. John Clancy. “He could take one look at you and tell if you needed to go to confession or not,” Ray said. “When my wife Sue and I married in 1959, he gave us a very beautiful mahogany crucifix that we treasure to this day.”

The year after he graduated from Bellarmine, Ray earned his pilot’s license; in 1975, he received an instrument rating so he could fly in all weather conditions and use his Beechcraft Bonanza on business trips. For 43 years, he worked in the medical profession, becoming the successful national sales manager for an orthopedic appliance company. Moving from Louisville when he was 28, Ray has lived in North Carolina for 44 years.

When he was 80, he was involved in a traumatic near-fatal auto collision, breaking multiple bones. His mangled leg was nearly amputated. “My family was told that I wouldn’t last until morning.” But he survived after spending two weeks in the intensive care unit, followed by several months in the hospital and a rehab facility.

Returning home, Ray faced another life-threatening medical emergency: He developed a serious hospital-acquired infection. Again, his family was told to expect the worst. “They called in palliative care to ease me over to ‘the other side,’ but God had other plans for me,” Ray said.

For over a year he underwent intensive therapy at home, but his trauma physician eventually told him that his leg would never heal. “Our pastor visited and said we had a second option,” Ray recalled. “We could pray that God would heal my leg, so we did—and God did!”

On his 84th birthday, to celebrate his good fortune, Ray crossed something off his bucket list. “From 10,000 feet, I went skydiving before I got old and couldn’t do these things anymore,” he said, adding, “I didn’t tell my family since they get fidgety about every little thing.”

At about age 75, Ray began playing competitive table tennis three times a week, in addition to his YMCA workouts. “Table tennis is a great game for seniors,” he said. “It is lots of fun and there seems to be a special camaraderie among players.” After winning one gold and one silver medal in the North Carolina Senior Games, he decided to compete in the National Senior Olympic Games, which was held in June 2019 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In preparation, he practiced 10 hours a week with much younger players. “It is a fast game and takes lightning reflexes,” he said. “Consider that a table tennis ball has a maximum velocity of 100 mph, and you are only nine feet away from your opponent.”

Competing against 48 others in the 80-84 age bracket while wearing his Bellarmine gear, Ray achieved several victories in men’s doubles and mixed doubles but didn’t advance to the medal rounds. However, he will always be a winner in the eyes of Sue, his wife of 60 years, his three children and six grandchildren.

“I plan to play singles in the 2021 Senior Olympics in Florida, and move up to the 85-89 age bracket,” Ray said. “Maybe that will be my year. Swords up!”

By Harry Rothgerber ’69

Tags: Alumni