Olon Edward Ray of Saucier was one of the most prominent visionaries for education in Mississippi.
He is credited with spearheading the state’s first online community college classes in the 1990s while serving as executive director of the state Community College Board from 1990 until his retirement in 2002, said Becky Cade, his former assistant.
“When I worked for him while he was on the Community College Board, he pushed us to implement technology in education,” Cade said. “He believed that education was the way out of poverty and he saw technology as a way to accomplish that.”
After just a few semesters of offering online classes, Ray established the first two-year online degree program.
“He took all of us to a higher level,” Cade said. “It was a collective effort, but Olon was the visionary.”
Ray died Friday at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg. He was 76.
His accomplishments on the Community College Board are just a few of the many he was known for.
Ray began his career with a brief teaching stint in Brandon schools, then returned the Coast as administrative assistant in the Biloxi Public School District. Shortly thereafter, he began working toward his doctorate. In 1975, he earned his doctorate in educational administration from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Ray served as superintendent of the Biloxi Public School District from 1975 to 1988, during which time he made significant administrative changes that affected the entire district, including the realignment of school structures to include a middle school for grades six through eight at Fernwood, Michel and Nichols schools.
The high school, which at the time had seen several years of decreasing student enrollment, enrolled all students in grades nine through 12. Among Ray’s most progressive steps for the Biloxi schools was the passage of a bond in 1984 that financed air conditioning for all the district’s schools.
As a result of the passage of the state Education Reform Act, with which Ray was closely associated, the schools in 1985 and 1986 added pilot kindergarten classes for the first time in the history of the district and fully implemented the kindergarten program in 1986 and 1987.
Ray helped found Mississippians for Quality Education, a group that organized efforts to increase teacher salaries and school financing and to redirect efforts that made education a first priority for legislative consideration in the future.
After he left his superintendent position in 1988, Ray became educational advisrr to Gov. Ray Mabus. He then served as executive director of the Community College Board from 1990 until his retirement in 2002.
“He was a leader and one of the best motivators I ever met,” Cade said. “He cared about his staff and challenged us to grow and learn. He was just such a visionary.”
Cade said she has never worked with anyone as inspirational as Ray.
At one point, Ray befriended a homeless man on the Coast and would often take him to doctor appointments, Cade said.
She said he was a humble man and pointed out how he requested a simple obituary that did not glorify his accomplishments. His obituary contained only a single sentence about his service with the Biloxi school district and the Community College Board.
“He just cared so deeply about people,” Cade said. “We were just blessed to know him and blessed to work with him.”
Graveside services will be at 10 a.m. Monday at Wiggins City Cemetery in Wiggins. Memorials may be sent to Parkway Baptist Church, 16372 Old Woolmarket Road, Biloxi, MS 39532 or to the Olon E. Ray and Ann Traylor Ray Scholarship Fund in care of Biloxi First, P.O. Box 982, Biloxi MS 39533.