On Friday, Ret. Army Col. Ray Darling was laid to rest at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, one of the rare veterans of three 20th-century wars: World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Although he never experienced combat — his job was in the Corps of Engineers — he served his country for 28 years, retiring as a “full bird” colonel.
Here in Citrus County, Ray was best known for founding Upward Bound, a program of the Rotary clubs of Citrus County that supports, encourages and recognizes students who, as he once put it, “never get a pat on the back.”
After a long, fulfilling life, Raymond Everett Darling, Citrus County’s 1993 Citizen of the Year and a 2018 Chamber Pillar Award winner, died May 9. He was 98.
Years ago, Ray wrote his autobiography, “The Story of the Life of Ray Everett Darling 1920 — .”
It starts out: “On the 27th of August, 1920, a great event took place. Raymond Everett Darling came into this world, the gift of Melvin T. Darling and Florence M. Lowe (Darling).”
His parents divorced in 1923, leaving his mother unable to care for her six kids, so all were placed in foster homes. Ray was only 2 years old.
In a 2015 Chronicle Monday Conversation, Ray Darling talked about growing up in foster care and how it greatly affected his life.
“I was in two foster homes,” he said. “The first one until I was 3 and the second one until 1936. That was a place called the Opportunity Farm in New Gloucester, Maine, and I have some very positive, favorable thoughts about it.”
He was there with his two brothers, Clifford and Melvin, plus about 30 other boys. It was a working farm where the boys helped with the animals and farm chores.
“We had a cook that used to talk to us about government and such and let us ask questions,” he said. “I learned so much from that.”
For the rest of his life, Ray talked about that cook, Mr. Lawrence, said Jane Darling, Ray’s wife of 31 years.
“Ray was always so positive,” she said. “Most kids might be bitter about being in foster care, but not Ray. He was positive about everything.”
Ray, twice divorced, met Jane in 1983 at a facility for mentally handicapped children in Waterford, Connecticut, where she worked and he volunteered, his son having been a resident there.
“The first time I saw Ray I thought, ‘What a pleasant person,’” Jane Darling said. “And that wonderful smile — he was so proud that he had all of his own teeth to the end of his life.”
At age 15, Ray left the Opportunity Farm to go to a foster home in Hanover, Massachusetts, so he could finish high school, and after that went to New York City where he worked odd jobs, then took the test for the fire department.
“I passed the test, but they wouldn’t give me a job because I was going to be drafted,” he said.
Instead, he became a corrections officer at Rikers Island until he was drafted into the Army in 1942.
He retired in 1970.
“That’s when what I call ‘payback time’ began,” he said.
For the first 13 years he volunteered with handicapped kids, then after he and Jane married in 1986 and moved to Citrus County, he volunteered in the public schools.
In 1990, he and Jane went to an awards program at Lecanto High School. Afterwards, they talked about how “only the super achievers” ever got any kind of recognition, but that there were a lot of other kids who deserved it, too.
“I was in Rotary in Homosassa and I told them I wanted to start a program for kids who never got a pat on the back, and that was the birth of Upward Bound,” Ray said.
“Then I went to Carl Austin, who was the superintendent of schools, and he thought it would work. I also talked to some school principals and then to all the Rotary clubs and they said they’d support it.”
To date, more than 8,000 have been recognized for their achievements through Upward Bound.
At Ray’s memorial service Friday at Hooper Funeral Home in Beverly Hills, fellow Rotarian Gerry Schabruch recalled how Ray always told everyone that he (Gerry) was the one who came up with the idea, “but I would correct him — ‘No, Ray Darling is the man who did it all.’ But that was Ray. He didn’t care about accolades and pats on the back for himself. He was too busy encouraging and patting others on the back.”
Also in 1990, Ray began volunteering with Camp E-Ninni-Hasse, teaching math to the at-risk girls several days a week, although he taught them so much more than just math.
It all stemmed from his upbringing, of being in foster care, not knowing his father, being separated from most of his siblings and only seeing his mother a few times a year when she would visit him as a boy.
“We called him Mr. Ray,” said JoLynn Smith, Camp E-Ninni-Hassee director. “He told his story to the thousands of teenage girls, and to them and to our staff, Mr. Ray was everything to those girls, a father, a grandfather, uncle.
“His impact over 25 years has multiplied and grown,” Smith said, “and those young women are better mothers and their children will have a very different life than what they had because of Mr. Ray.”
Ray’s pastor, the Rev. Stewart Jamison, called Ray Darling “a real American hero” and his good friend.
“He stood head and shoulders above a great many of us ... he did things because he saw a need. He loved and he cared and he’d act. ... Ray’s life was one of service in many areas.”
Barbara Mills, founder of Operation Welcome Home for returning veterans, said Ray Darling was her hero.
“He used to come out to the Welcome Home dinners and shake the hands of the younger (troops), and that was so great,” she said. “I think my greatest accomplishment with Ray was getting him to go on an Honor Flight. It took me two years to get him to go, and when he went, he came back and thanked me. For what he’s done, I thank him.”
Throughout his 98 years, Ray Darling touched many lives. He had a vise-like handshake, he loved astronomy and could multiply numbers by Pi. He understood light years. He loved hot dogs, plain without a bun, and would put beans on top of his potato salad.
He loved sailing and ate breakfast every morning at Jimmy T’s in Hernando, stopping at every table to talk, especially to those wearing a veteran’s hat.
“He was a great man,” Jamison said. “He loved the military, he loved kids, and we will miss him.”