Before meeting a person with the first name of Champ, one would assume that person would be a cool customer. In the case of Champ Edward Ray, that assumption would be correct.
“My mother gave me (the name, Champ)” Ray said. “(My grandfather, who I was named after,) his real name was William Morris. He was down in Cuba, and he was a prizefighter for the Army. When he got out of the Army, guys still called him ‘Champ,’ and he went by that for years. Then I ended up with the name.”
Ray was born on a burly tobacco farm six miles outside of Madison Springs. He grew up fast — he graduated high school at 15, left home at 16 and joined the Navy at 17.
“My mom signed the paper,” Ray said, when asked how he was able to enlist at such a young age.
Being forced to grow up so fast may have helped Ray to climb the ranks with the Navy. He worked in medical throughout his career, and worked his way up to the top of his field. As a Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, Ray was enlisted in the ninth, and highest, rank in the Navy. He also received the highest pay grade in the corps, with an E-9 grade.
Earning that E-9 pay grade did not come automatically, though. Ray traveled to many places and put in 22 years with the Navy in total. He was first shipped to Sidi Yahya, Morocco. While there, he worked in communications facilities with the Naval Security Group, a subset of the National Security Agency.
Rather than the exotic beauty of the North African land, he instead remembers the realities of a country fighting for independence.
“It was different,” he said. “I was there (in Morocco) when they had a war going on in Algiers (the capital of Algeria,) and the Moroccans were fighting for their independence. Anyway, it was not a real war, but at the doorstep of a war in Morocco.”
After completing his tour of duty in Morocco, Ray returned to his hometown while on leave and married his wife Shirley Ann. They’ve been married ever since, and have two children, two grandchildren, and a 1-year-old granddaughter.
After Morocco, Ray shipped to San Miguel, Republic of the Philippines. As in Morocco, he worked in naval communications facilities with the Naval Security Group. Separately, Ray also performed two tours aboard submarine repair ships the U.S.S. Nereus, home ported in San Diego, and the U.S.S. Holland, home ported in Rota, Spain. Though you wouldn’t know it from his humble demeanor, Ray is like Johnny Cash — he’s been everywhere, man.
Ray also served two tours in the Fleet Marine Forces, which is operated by Navy fleet commanders under the administrative control of the Commandant of the Marine Corps. He did one tour with the Second Marine Aircraft Wing in Cherry Point, N.C., and another tour with the First Marine Aircraft Wing in Da Nang, Vietnam.
“The Marine Corps doesn’t have its own medical and dental,” Ray said. “So, the Navy Corpsmen provided that for the Marines. I’m qualified in dental and in medical, so I’m qualified in both areas. It’s sort of unusual to be qualified in both areas.”
This highly specialized training that Ray received made him a hot commodity throughout the Navy. He was eventually assigned to the Enlisted Personal Distribution Office, Continental United States, a recruit training facility. There, he was given the assignment of training all Hospital Corps with technical skills, such as X-ray technicians and lab technicians.
The last six years of his Navy career, Ray was assigned to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Navy Department in Washington, D.C. He was a senior enlisted adviser to the Surgeon General of the Navy and the Chief of the Navy Dental Corps. Ray said the Surgeon General, Donald L. Custis, was distantly related to General Robert E. Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. Custis was a vice admiral, a three-star commissioned officer. A vice admiral is one step below an admiral — the highest appointment a Navy officer can achieve.
Custis and Chief of the Navy Dental Corps, Admiral Bob Elliott, served as his two main bosses in Washington.
“(Elliott) was a gunnery officer in the Navy on the U.S.S. Missouri (in World War II,)” Ray said. “The Japanese surrendered on the Missouri (in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.) (Elliott) got out of the Navy, went back to school and got his degree, and then came back (to the Navy.)”
Like Elliott, Ray knows about the commitment to the Armed Forces.
Ray served two years as the Disabled American Veterans chairman and commander of its local chapter 43. He is also chairman of the Burke County Killed In Action (KIA) Committee. Ray and the KIA Action Committee formed a memorial fund to build a monument honoring local veterans. He says the fund has raised about $30,000 of the $100,000 it needs for the monument.
During his stint in Washington, D.C., from 1971-77, Ray said there was a lot of turmoil in the area resulting from protesters. While serving there, he did not lead on that he was serving in the Navy when he met folks outside of work, because of all the chaos in the area at the time.
Once he retired from the Navy, he says he “kept (his serving in the Navy) mostly to himself.”
“You’ve got to remember something,” Ray said. “When I retired from the Navy in 1977, I was a Vietnam veteran, and there were some pretty bitter memories when I got back home. (I was) spat on. I was hurt. We were called ‘baby-killers.’
“(In many people’s view at the time,) if you were in the military, you were worse than whale (poop) on the bottom of the ocean.”
He didn’t waste much time dilly-dallying after retiring from the Navy. Due to the breadth of training and expertise he gained in the Navy, Ray earned a Registered Nurse license through WPCC’s nursing program in 1980.
“I slept through the classes,” he joked. “(Job supervisors) would tell me, ‘You have to be a graduate of an accredited school.’ I had to feed my kids.”
Still, even professionally, Ray kept a low-profile about his service.
“I did 26 years of nursing here in Burke County,” he said. “I wouldn’t say more than two or three people knew I had ever been to the military.”
Ray is both humble and proud of his service to the country. At first, when asked to give an interview, he wrote, “I don’t think my military background is very interesting. However, if you are inclined to write about it, then OK.”
Still, he recognized the significance of his many accomplishments.
“One percent of enlisted people make Master Chief,” he said.
He carries reminders of the sacrifices he made. He underwent quadruple vessel bypass surgery, has a Pacemaker, endured two aneurysms, and is on full disability.
Along with his battle wounds, Ray has other, more heart-warming evidence of his sacrifices. He was awarded a Navy Commendation Medal, the Combat Action Ribbon and the Fleet Marine Force Combat Operations Device.
Ray earned a second Navy Commendation Medal for developing and implementing a health care information retrieval system for the Navy. Similarly, he revised the Navy’s dental technician program that allowed it to provide more efficient and effective training for its trainees.
Now, Champ enjoys watching basketball, football and baseball. He likes to keep up with N.C. State and UNC in basketball and football. He even played a year of college football as a halfback for Asheville-Biltmore College, now UNC-Asheville, as a 16-year-old.
Sports are in his bloodline. He remembers being 5 years old and watching his dad play baseball as a pitcher in the WNC Industrial League.
“Before Mom and he broke up, Dad used to play in a league sponsored by cotton mills around Western North Carolina,” he said. “On Sunday afternoons, Dad would go up to Martel Mills in Asheville. They’d pay him $20 a game, which was a lot of money back then. (After the game,) he’d go back and plow the fields.”
He also enjoys spending time with his family. He recently visited Williamsburg, Va. for his great-granddaughter’s first birthday. After 22 years serving in the Navy and 26 years of professional nursing, looking back on his time in the military has become a bit easier for Ray now than it once was in the past.
“You know, I think it’s coming around a lot,” he said. “The attitude of the American people has changed a lot since the 1960s and ’70s. I think it started changing in the ’80s a little bit, and it really changed a lot in the ’90s. Now, it’s really changed. It’s pretty cool.”