One of my best friends passed away last week. Shortly after 7 a.m. Friday, my iPhone beeped with a text from Rex Doak telling me his uncle, Ralph Doak, had passed away during the early morning hours.
Ralph and I became friends in 1957, about 60 years ago, when the New Antioch Red Raiders roared into Port William to play the Bulldogs’ fifth-grade basketball team. We remained friends throughout our entire lives. In fact, I had the opportunity to introduce Ralph to his wife, Becky, one fall night in Jamestown. They were married 47 years.
Ralph and I always shared a sense of freedom, fun, and enthusiasm for the little things — some might say the silly things — all through school, which we carried with us when things got too serious. Whenever we were together, even as adults we loved to resurrect those sides of our personalities.
This is the Ralph I am going to remember here.
Ralph passed away peacefully in his sleep this St. Patrick’s Day at about 4:30 a.m., which was fitting in a sense. If Ralph was reading this column, I can imagine him smiling, his white teeth gleaming.
When we were attending Wilmington High School, it was rare for a student to own his or her own car, but Ralph did. He was a successful entrepreneur even at this early age.
Ralph raised hogs, or more precisely, swine. In fact, he became recognized as an expert in the swine industry. He spent the majority of his professional career with the National Swine Registry, where he was well-known, well-respected and beloved.
One fall evening back in 1963, a brand new green and white Chevrolet Chevelle pulled up in front of our home on North Spring Street in Wilmington. It was Ralph. He had just bought the car with proceeds from a round of successful hog sales. He was probably one of a handful of high school sophomores ever to be able to purchase his own automobile.
Back in those days, if you were a teenager in Wilmington, you cruised the town. Many evenings around six o’clock, I’d call the Doak residence on Accommodation Road. “Mrs. Doak, is Ralph there?” I would ask.
“No, he’s down at the old Conlin place,” Margaret Doak would respond with a slight chuckle. “Would you like for me to ask him to call you?”
“Yes, that’ll be fine. We’re going to ride around town tonight,” went the usual conversation.
Several times a week, after completing our homework, Ralph and I met up with our friends John Reynolds, Dan Dehan and Nick Eveland, and headed for Frisch’s for a night of cruising. Ralph loved two things at Frisch’s — cherry Cokes and playing the song “Bummin’ Around” by Dean Martin on the jukebox.
Another best friend of ours, Paul Shivers, lived on Library Avenue at the time. Paul loved music, too, becoming a music teacher many years later. He had a good sense of humor and we loved to hear Paul’s infectious laugh.
Ralph, John, Nick and I were in the Wilmingtones and we sang about every day at school. Ralph had a sweet Irish tenor voice, and of course, John was and still is an accomplished musician and singer.
One evening Ralph got the bright idea we should share our singing talents with Paul.
We pulled onto Library Avenue at about 8:30 p.m. and yelled, “Paul! Paul!” until we saw Paul peek out the window. Then, we sang the only song we knew in four-part harmony, an old folk song, “Aura Lee,” that we sang at school.
Paul would laugh and wave as we moved on down the trail. Paul’s dad didn’t share the same enthusiasm for our singing, particularly since he had to get up early for work the next morning.
However, one of Paul’s neighbors appreciated our singing. Hugh G. Heiland found our serenades hilarious, of course. Looking back, we like to think Professor Heiland had a good ear for music, since the former Boyd Auditorium at Wilmington College is now the Hugh G. Heiland Theatre.
One St. Patrick’s Day we serenaded Paul with the Irish song, “Galway Bay.” From that day on, Professor Heiland called me “Patrick O’Haley” and Ralph, “Ralph O’Doak” — until his death, just four days shy of his 91st birthday.
It wasn’t long before our exploits became acknowledged around school, and we became known as the Ralph Doak Quartet.
Ralph was fondly remembered on Facebook by many of our former classmates and teachers. Peggy Bennett wrote, “Amy, I have always considered your dad a true friend. We had more fun in the Wilmingtones than should have ever been allowed!”
His former English teacher, Martha Knowles, wrote, “Your dad was truly a great guy. He was a student of mine in College Preparatory Sophomore English. He was a great guy back then, too. I can still remember where he sat in class.”
The gentleman farmer from Martinsville, late of Accommodation Road, was one-of-a-kind.
Ralph was a sweet, gentle soul, with a true goodness about him.
May God bless Ralph Doak, and may he rest in eternal peace.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.