Dusted by Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, devastated by diabetes for 44 years, hunched by scoliosis and slowed by a stroke that has impaired his speech and his mobility, Ray Ritchey of Monrovia is nevertheless as steady as a rock.
The rock analogy fits because the former financial manager and analyst, now 71, is surrounded by them. Rocks, including gems, jewelry, minerals, fossils, and beads, are heaped in his backyard, piled in his driveway, stacked on his kitchen and dining room tables, and amassed in practically every corner of his Craftsman-style home. They represent the accumulation and craggy pursuit of a life well lived.
To the uninitiated eye, these rocks may be silent, but to Ray they speak volumes. On one table alone, he can point to stones of red jasper, rose quartz, serpentine, antique marble, rhyolite, and tiger’s eye, and he can tell you where they were dug up and how they were formed. His knowledge is encyclopedic.
The rocks and semi-precious stones in his possession hold closely guarded secrets. It’s only when Ray methodically and meticulously cuts, trims, grinds and polishes them with a series of saws and rock tumblers that he can reveal their inner beauty.
“It’s an activity that I can still do without injuring myself,” Ray said, conceding that working with some rocks can literally be a back-breaking burden.
Yet when so many aspects of his health have abandoned him, he knows that inside each rock he can find an indescribable joy and solace.
“Each rock has a spiritual and healing value,” Ray claimed.
His contention his hard to argue when you see the reverie that creases his face each time he opens a split geode, revealing a cathedral of amethyst crystals or a thunder egg showing off layers of rhyolitic volcanic ash that resemble a strawberry milkshake.
Inside Ray’s home, one quickly realizes that old socks make great sweaters for his precious rocks. He stoops over and picks one up off the floor and slowly squeezes out of the cotton tube sock a baseball-size dolomite sphere every bit as brilliant and seductive as the rings of Saturn.
Although it’s only December, Ray is now hard at work preparing grab bags of rocks for the Los Angeles County Arboretum’s annual gem and mineral show hosted each March by the Monrovia Rockhounds, of which his wife Jo Anna just happens to be president.
Ray and Jo Anna enjoy almost as much history as some of their rocks. Last year, they celebrated their 50th year of marriage. Because Ray’s father worked for Pan American World Airways, Ray has somewhat of a global pedigree. He graduated high school in Thailand, and after thinking better of working as a medic carving up cadavers in Southeast Asia as part of an Army program that would give him a free ride to medical school, he attended the American University of Beirut. It was in Beirut where he met Jo Anna, also a college student, when they were both working one night as chaperones.
After obtaining their respective degrees back in the states at Whittier College, Ray and Jo Anna settled down to lead professional lives, he as a finance whiz and she as a local teacher before becoming an accountant. Their love and appreciation of the Earth was the magma that has kept their bond strong.
The bond would have to be strong to help them endure the countless trips of weekend rock hunting, not always knowing if their overloaded trailer would survive the strain of hauling their treasure over washed-out roads back to their Monrovia home.
Over the years, Ray and Jo Anna have furnished various rock and gem stores with material, including the Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center to which they donated more than 2,000 pounds of rocks and fossils in just the last two years.
In between sharing his countless stories, Ray displays a dinosaur bone that is smoother and creamier than a Hershey chocolate bar. “Look at the cell structure,” Ray said with the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old catching a foul ball at his first professional baseball game.
Then, cracking a wry smile, he cradles a clump of dinosaur poop that has petrified over the years into an exquisite jade-like egg baring an intricately carved dinosaur. He snickers at thought that not everyone would consider dino poop so beautiful.
“What we’re trying to do here is to get kids to like science,” said Ray, who used to visit classrooms and dazzle youngsters with his show-and-tell when he could get around more easily. “We hope they gain an appreciation of the world around him. For so many of them, they’ve never considered where tin, copper or steel comes from or how it’s made. For many of them, they’ve never seen a chicken or a turkey or cow. They think everything they eat comes from the supermarket.”
Ray and Jo Anna haven’t only rescued rocks from their silence, they’ve also given new life to rescue animals. Bella, a meek, even shy, pinkish-hued pit bull hiding in the hall was initially found wrapped in plastic inside a refrigerator. Meanwhile, Summer, a Cairn terrier, rests at Ray’s feet. Two cats, Thunder and Princess, have also taken up residence.
After repeatedly getting up to show off another gem, Ray retakes his seat at a small table in his breakfast nook. Although frail, he can still multitask as well as any hot-shot millennial. In between our conversation, he fields a call from a friend asking about Medicare. His answers are so effortless and straightforward that Google should put him on its payroll. Another call comes in from someone inquiring about Death Valley. Ray explains, matter-of-factly, that the hottest place on Earth was once an inland sea more than 100,000 years ago.
When Ray can’t spit something out in rapid fashion — the lingering effects of his stroke — he spells it out even faster.
At this stage of his life, Ray is an engaged human being — one whose life still clearly rocks.
God might have made the rocks, but Ray and Jo Anna help show them off in all their fabulous forms, shapes and sizes. You can find this gem of a couple and all their rock-hunting and rock-exhibiting pals at the Pasadena Lapidary Society’s March show (March 11-12) at the Masonic Temple. For more information, please email the Society at email@example.com.
The Monrovia Rock & Gem Show will be March 4-5, 2017 from 9 a.m .to 4:30 p.m. at the Arboretum in Arcadia.