Witness Post: Raymond Oliver March 2, 2012
Ray Oliver was a man who understood individuals and teams in unique and personal ways. At a time in our history, when few people can remember the horrors of World Wars, Ray’s 90-year life is an amazingly selfless story of scholarship, sacrifice, and service. He worked and played hard, but mostly he gave of himself and followed the rules. His mathematical logic and insistence on doing the right things, helped him play “within the lines.” Ray would probably add that life was also about having LUCK and being FAIR.
I admired Coach Oliver, despite the fact that he was the head coach of the “other guys.” As a student at Loyola High School in Towson, I first met Coach Oliver in 1968. My Dad had followed high school wrestling with great interest for many years and he knew the programs and coaches at Gilman, Poly, City, Mervo, Loyola, Overlea, and McDonogh well. McDonogh had one of the fiercest teams in the former Maryland Scholastic Association (the MSA’s). Known as the Eagles, McDonogh had some outstanding leg wrestlers near my weight class. Leg wrestling was punishing for the “down” wrestler, because of the control and pain that the top wrestler could apply.
Several McDonogh wrestlers used a pinning combination called the “Figure 4.” To explain this particular hold, it squeezes the daylights out of the opponents so intensely that some begged for a “mercy slap of the mat” by the referee. Imagine, for a moment, someone applying intense pressure on your head and arms from above, while wrapping his legs in an inextricable scissor lock around your midsection. All of their weight gets leveraged on top of you: your head is torqued into the mat with increasing pressure; your wind is nearly cut-off by a half nelson; the harder you resist, the more your shoulders get exposed to the mat; your legs start going numb; you feel like you are going to pass out and your guts feel like they will be cut off from the rest of your body — you get the picture.
Years later Coach Oliver defended his wrestlers love of leg holds. The team had picked up the Figure 4 and some other leg holds, while attending a Naval Academy wrestling clinic hosted by Coach Ed Peery. Contrary to popular belief, Coach Oliver had not been the one to force his wrestlers to use those punishing leg holds. He said, “The boys would roll around the practice room all the time trying leg moves. Some were good at it, others were not. I always warned that ‘if you live by legs, you can die by legs, too’ … You can stack up a lot of riding time using leg rides and still lose.” Coach Oliver preferred molding more complete wrestlers, who were competent on takedowns, escapes from the bottom, and who mastered multiple pinning combinations. I had some experience wrestling against McDonogh boys, facing JV and varsity grapplers 5 times in high school and, luckily, never lost. Twice I caught Scott Livvy, the 1971 captain, and pinned him before he could get the legs in. Livvy was also a lacrosse star at McDonogh, and he evened the score by romping against us on the lacrosse field.
Ray Oliver in black & white stripes
Ray was also a referee for college wrestling matches in those days. He reffed some of our Yale matches in the NCAA qualifying Eastern Regionals (EIWA’s). He was always quick with his calls and precise with his whistle, calmly in command of every aspect of the match, particularly the starts and stops and potentially dangerous holds. Coaches would shrilly rant and rave about some of his calls. Ray would carefully meet the coach at the scorer’s table, explain his call , then go back to business. The coaches knew who was in control, even if it were arguable what the right call should be. Ray was always fair, even if the coach noisily protested that he saw it from a better angle.
My dad, brother and I drove to Cole Fieldhouse in College Park, to watch Maryland wrestle against number one seeded Iowa State. This was in February, 1969. Ray Oliver was the referee of the dual meet. The advertised match-up was between Dan Gable, the defending national champion, and Curt Callahan, the muscle-bound captain of the Terps. Gable (137#) moved up a weight class to wrestle Callahan (145#), who was undefeated in 20 matches before the Iowa State contest. Gable controlled the match from the start, collecting a quick takedown. During the rest of the first period Gable had Callahan in some of the most painful moves I ever remember seeing up close. Gable took “leverage” to a whole new level; he was not a particularly good leg wrestler, but he out-maneuvered Callahan with a strong takedown in the first period and he started to grind him down, controlling his head on the mat and nearly prying his arms from the sockets. Although Gable had Callahan in trouble and/or on his back for most of the second period, Ref. Oliver did not call a pin. The Iowa State coach, Harold Nichols, was screaming loudly, but Ray authoritatively blew the whistle at the end of the second period, and waved his arms declaring “no fall!” About a minute into the third period, however, Callahan finally succumbed and Gable held both shoulders flat long enough for Oliver to call the pin. Even as Ray was raising Gable’s hand in victory, the Cyclone’s coach was still jeering the tardiness of the pin call.
I remember asking Ray and his wife, Evelyn, why he stopped reffing. I told him I admired his cool, controlled exterior. Evelyn said that Ray’s doctor had urged him to stop reffing, because the stress was impacting his heart and his health. Ray seemed so steady and sure, spectators never imagined that his internal condition was anything other than cool confidence.
Over the years I have had the pleasure of attending some NCAA wrestling tournaments with some current and former Maryland referees. Ray’s name always comes up as a man admired for his leadership, patience, willingness to travel, and his steadiness on the mat. He was also known for his safety of the wrestler’s, blowing the whistle and calling “potentially dangerous,” before the wrestlers got hurt. Bill Hastings, Tom Gaylin, George McKelvie, Jim Chung, and Ed Kelly are revered Maryland referees and they always wanted to hear news of Ray, when I saw them at the tournaments.
Ray the Naval Officer
During my tenure at McDonogh, Oliver was always encouraging of our wrestlers, suggesting that they attend summer clinics in the region. As a Naval Academy graduate, he was quick to suggest the Navy clinic in Annapolis. The Coach, Ed Peery, was a three-time NCAA champion wrestler, from an exceptional wrestling family at University of Pittsburgh. Ed’s son, Greg, wrestled at Mount Saint Joe’s in West Baltimore, and was the first 4 time Maryland State champion. There were always some great clinicians at the Naval Academy and many of them knew Ray. In the main wrestling room at Navy there was a sign on the ceiling amidst the rafters that stated in big bold letters: “If you can read this sign, you are PINNED!” Interestingly, on the wall above the wainscoting in that room was a picture of Ray Oliver in his wrestling uniform with the team in 1941.
There are stories told about the midshipmen who served and died in the Pacific a few years after that photo was taken. They were not too many days older than Ray; he feels that he was one of the lucky ones. He was on the island of Iwo Jima “fighting the good fight,” as he would say, when the famous image of the US flag was taken. Ray was not quick to talk about war, and he never took any personal credit for his service. He says, “I was a gunnery sergeant and just part of the team.” I would have wanted Ray Oliver in my boat, for sure.
Ray the Counselor
When I was the head coach at McDonogh, after Coach Dan Blakinger retired, I often visited Ray Oliver in his Allen Building office and asked his advice. I also asked him to critique the wrestlers and to come to the practice room and show them what they could do better. Ray was coordinating the annual Oliver Wrestling Tournament, held during Christmas break, and he still worked up a lather playing tennis against his arch rival, Ed Kenney, but he said he could not longer “roll around” with the wrestling team. He attended most home meets, though, and I sought his council on how to get the most out of the wrestlers.
The McDonogh campus, over 800 acres, is equal to some college campuses and the buildings are separated by grass lined concrete paths. I was a Middle School faculty member in Finney Building and Ray helped keep an eye on wrestlers in the Allen Building, since many of them were his counselees and/or math students. In the hallways while offering to shake the boys’ hands, he would grab them with an arm drag instead, quickly getting behind them. “You can never let your guard down as a wrestler!” he joked.
Ray knew the students well and he always encouraged me to be patient and firm, even if that meant losing a wrestler from the team. As a guidance counselor and teacher, he knew all too well about adolescent exuberance and low points. I tried to take his advice to heart. Ray believed deeply that life may not be fair, but coaches should be. My first year we were about to lose one of our best varsity wrestlers to a series of athletic-induced asthma attacks, and it annoyed me that he wanted to quit. “It is the right thing to do,” urged Ray, so I bit my tongue and let him go. Ray had a longer-term view.
One particular time I had a wrestling dilemma and sought out Ray for advice: we had some team injuries and were left with two light 98# wrestlers and no one to wrestle 103# weight class. Five pounds does not sound like a lot of weight to give up, but when the two contenders are 88# and 92# fully dressed, the percentage weight differences were huge. I explained the situation to Ray and he advised a wrestle-off, letting the winner to pick the weight class. “But that will leave the weaker wrestler at the heavier weight, which may be bad for the team,” I argued. “That may be true,” said Ray, “But it is the fair thing to do for the better wrestler.” He was right. The lighter and weaker wrestler improved tremendously over the next two years and was elected the co-captain in his senior year; it all worked out.
Ray the Teacher
In my last year of teaching at McDonogh, I was having some difficulty with a Calculus course I was taking as a graduate student at Towson University. I had not taken a math course since high school, and knew that Ray worked miracles with mediocre math students, so I approached him in the lunchroom about serving as my tutor. He agreed on three conditions: 1) show up at the appointed time, 2) do the homework, and 3) he would accept no payment. I agreed and went through an intensive review of Algebra II, Geometry, and Trigonometry. He brought out his teaching charts, which were cardboard graphs showing the key principles of each topic. He instructed me to memorize certain sections, because “any monkey can drill and memorize,” so I did. When it came to the actual Calculus lessons, Ray helped me realize that I had reestablished all the foundations I “should have had in high school” to succeed. I am forever grateful to Ray for his tutoring in what could have been a “dark period” for me in my late 20’s.
One afternoon I asked Ray how he was able to make a life for himself and his family on a teacher’s salary. “I have some good summer jobs at the Timonium Fair Grounds, and I have been lucky.” Begging the next question, I asked Ray to explain what he meant about the LUCK. He mentioned that among other things he had been an early investor in recreational bowling. Ray said that he had made a sizable chunk of change in the stock market with “Fairlanes,” when it went public. “I made enough money to send my kids to college and for Evelyn and me to have a fair retirement.” There was that word again, FAIR. To Ray a lot of his teaching and coaching career seemed to be about fairness. Since he had a house on campus at McDonogh, he said he felt very fortunate.
One day last December, 2011, I was visiting my dear friend, QD Thompson, at Edenwald in Towson, and he invited a surprise guest: Ray Oliver. Not surprisingly the conversation came around to McDonogh, and I asked Ray how he decided to be a student at McDonogh. I may have some of the exact details incorrect, but here is my recollection of the story: “I was a sixth grader in Baltimore in 1934; it was during the Depression and we had to scrimp and save all the time. My mother and I lived on Poplar Grove Street and a neighbor came over one day with a newspaper clipping. The newspaper in those days, cost 3 cents, and we had stopped the daily delivery to save money. The neighbor said that since I was a pretty good student, I should apply for a scholarship to McDonogh, and the newspaper article explained where to go to take the examination. I went to the School, took the exam, must have done well enough, and the rest is history …” And a fair and lucky history it is.
Coach Oliver, thank you for taking that first test. Thank you for giving half of your life to McDonogh and its students and fellow teachers. We miss you.
Henry E. Hooper
McDonogh School Affiliations: Middle School Faculty (1978 – 1980), Director of Development (1981 – 1984), Varsity Wrestling Coach (1978 – 1984), Middle School Football Czar (1979-1981)