By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – Ray Clayton, 69, an icon in the world of local news photography who mentored and inspired a generation of youngsters in the newspaper business, has died.
Clayton, who retired in 2008 after 32 years with Southern Rhode Island Newspapers – only to return almost immediately as a regular freelance contributor — lost a brief battle with lung cancer just after midnight on Christmas Day.
He was uniformly known as someone who didn’t dispassionately snap photos and run but, rather, was deeply committed to his community and those who live here. He was also widely described as one of the nicest guys you could find anywhere.
A shockwave went through town where very few realized Ray was ill.
Bill Pennoyer, a former North Kingstown School Committee member and longtime Republican Party activist, was among those taken by surprise.
“I’ve always been struck by his photographs. He was present at every major event in town; people could always depend on his being present. Even when he retired, his byline appeared week after week.
“One of my favorite ones that I still have is of [former Town Council President] Frank Cain shaking hands with Mel Benson during one of the parades. Frank used to stand near the Beach Rose Café for every parade; Ray got a wonderful picture of them.”
Pennoyer and Clayton shared status as veterans of the Vietnam War.While in the Navy, Clayton was stationed about the USS Wasp in the Caribbean during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the ship was dispatched to Guantanamo Bay as part of the blockade. Pennoyer has been active with veterans’ groups and patriotic events, including the town’s parades, which he organizes.
“Ray had a tremendous influence on covering the American Legion, the VFW and the parades,” he said.
Benson, long involved in state and local office, remembered him as a consummate professional who personally kept her on her toes.
“He took his pictures and nobody influenced him. He was a master; you never knew what shot he was going to use. You’d see Ray and say, ‘I’d better get straightened up; he’s taking pictures.’”
Town Councilman Chuck Brennan, retired captain of the North Kingstown Police Department, was among those hit hard by the news.
“I knew him for 20 years,” he said. “It’s a great loss for North Kingstown. I have been photographed by him on the police department, at parades. He would always go about his job very professionally; he’d be photographing you and you never knew he was there. He was very friendly, unassuming; a great guy.”
An Ohio native who was one of three children, Clayton became a professional musician and, in the late ‘60s, signed with Columbia Records. He moved to Rhode Island in 1976, a year after witnessing the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford by Sara Jane Moore. “It happened so quickly,” he would say later. “I don’t think anyone got any good photographs of what happened. All of mine were a blur. It was all so fast.”
Clayton was hired as a photographer by Southern Rhode Island Newspapers for whom he won an amazing 25 awards including being named New England Photographer of the Year in 1999 by the New England Press Association.
He was also selected as Photographer of the Year six times by the Rhode Island Press Association.
Rudi Hempe, retired Standard-Times editor, recalled hiring Clayton and Dan Dunn at virtually the same time.
“I hired Ray and I hired Dunn one day apart. I advertised for two photographers and [applicants] were lined up down the hall. By the the time I got to Ray I’d seen so many damn portfolios full of pictures of fire hydrants; he was nearly the last person I saw. He was refreshing. He had a portfolio of people, not artsy-fartsy stuff. He impressed me tremendously. He was there till I retired; we worked together nearly 30 years.
“We joined together on countless assignments. I would suggest some picture and he would do his own thing. It was a very close and cooperative collaboration; he always came up with something that was really meaningful. Ray had a way of making people relax. He was very reliable; I never had to worry.”
Clayton, he added, often saved the day.
“If something got screwed up because [an event] wasn’t assigned, he’d go take care of it. People in North Kingstown loved to see him come through the door.”
Mary Murphy, a photographer for the Providence Journal, recalled working with Clayton at the Standard from 1978-81.
“When I started, it was Ray and Danny Dunn. I was a woman coming into a male territory and Ray was very welcoming. I learned a lot from him. He was a really thoughtful, considerate person; quiet and talented.”
Jonathan Gibbs, former editor of the East Greenwich Pendulum, met Clayton through the job but they quickly became fast friends.
“From the beginning we got along; he would always submit the best photos.”
When he first went to East Greenwich, Gibbs recalled, Clayton was the victim of racial prejudice — something the paper tackled in print — after the police were called when Clayton, a black man, was spotted along the road, taking photographs. Years later, he said, the two of them discussed rap music and use of the “n” word.
“He was pretty sensitive; he didn’t like it. People of his era didn’t go through fire hoses and barking dogs only to go through it again.”
As they grew closer, the pair spent time together, Thursday afternoons after deadlines. “He put people at ease,” Gibbs reflected. “He was a ghost” becoming invisible in the background. However, he added, Clayton “didn’t suffer fools. One of the funniest things I ever saw [involved] a new, eager reporter who took 26 rolls of film of Navy Day. I told him not to.”
The reporter wound up going on a pub crawl with a group of sailors, getting falling-down drunk and scattering film everywhere. Clayton arrived, glared at the young man lying on the floor and called him an unprintable name. “Give me two rolls,” he demanded, over the youth’s protests that some of them might be blurry.
“He was fiercely loyal, honorable and true to himself,” Gibbs said of Clayton. “He was able to do that next right thing. His death is just a reminder to stand up and take note of that. He had this thick skin but underneath was a soft, gentle soul. He was really supportive, didn’t say stuff that was empty or shallow.”
As a surprise gift, Clayton photographed Gibbs’ wedding and later became godfather of his first son, Nathan.
“I’m really glad that we always said we loved each other when we hung up [after phone calls.]. I loved him like a brother, more than my real brother. I feel like I’ve lost a male soulmate”
Standard-Times Editor Paul J. Spetrini had a relatively brief but intense relationship with Clayton.
“I never worked with Ray that closely until a year after joining the company [in sports]. One of the first assignments we ever worked together, we were covering East Greenwich football and he took a bunch of photos and gave me three to choose from. I didn’t like any of the three so I decided to go with something else. He and I got into a screaming match because he was the wily veteran and I was the newcomer. He told me in no uncertain terms that I had no idea what I was talking about.
It always struck me: This guy was six months away from retirement and he had no reason to care but he still cared enough to fight for his photo because he knew it was the best one. It showed me that people who care are rare to find and, when you do, you don’t forget them. In the time since I’ve worked him as a freelancer, I always knew what I was getting. If he went somewhere, he was going to provide what he knew were the best photos.
“There aren’t many people like that anymore.”
Clayton is survived by his wife, Marlene, the Standard-Times’ office manager. He was the father of three, stepfather of two and grandfather of nine. A memorial celebration of his life will be held at a future time. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial donations may be made to the North Kingstown Food Pantry, 525 Boston Neck Rd., North Kingstown RI, 02852.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . When working together, she and Ray Clayton called themselves the Old Geezers Team.