Seventy two years after he arrived, La Ray Alexander’s impact still shows
GIANTS OF SAN JUAN
La Ray Alexander was not a home grown Blanding boy. He knew nothing of San Juan County when seeking his first teaching position after graduation from Brigham Young University. He came to Blanding in l938 because he was offered a teaching job at San Juan High School.
He came, and he flourished. Blanding and all of San Juan were enriched by the multitude of accomplishments and contributions this man made in his adopted home. Some have referred to him as a “human dynamo.” Indeed, those remembering him best said, “If he dies by drowning, look upstream for the body.” In other words, La Ray often chose not to “go with the flow.”
A classic example of La Ray’s independent spirit was evident his first year on the job at San Juan High School. He was smitten with the head cheerleader at San Juan High School his first day on the job. He knew dating a student would probably be the death knell to his career in the San Juan School District, but toward the end of his first year, he threw caution to the wind and asked Beverly Perkins to the Junior Prom in Monticello.
“She wore the most beautiful purple dress,” he recalled in his memoirs. “Since that night ‘Deep Purple’ has been my favorite song.” To say that he had a good time that night would be the understatement of l939.
His joy suffered a rude awakening when he found himself in the office of Principal Biggs the following Monday. He was told that people in Blanding took umbrage at his dating a student and that it may cost him his job. Without hesitation La Ray told the Principal that he had committed no great sin and if people felt that way, he would look for a job elsewhere.
A month later, contracts came out and La Ray was offered a $100 raise and the princely sum of $1250 to teach the l939-40 school year. On August 9, l939 he and Beverly were married in the Salt Lake Temple and they never looked back.
La Ray Alexander was born July 20, l912 in a little four-room farmhouse in the River bottoms of Spanish Fork, UT, the tenth child of David William Alexander and Nancy Caroline Hold Alexander. He was born 15 minutes before his twin sister, La Reta.
La Ray was bigger than La Reta, and he said the reason was because when they were tiny babies in the same crib, he could drink his milk faster than La Reta and as soon as his bottle was empty he would steal La Reta’s and empty it too. With nine older siblings, he mother seldom heard La Reta’s plaintive cries.
He recalls how thrilled he was the day his father deemed him fit to hoe sugar beets. He was taken to the field and instructed in the fine points of that endeavor. By the time he was halfway down his first 30 rod row, his joy and anticipation had waned considerably.
By the end of the day, he was already looking forward to the beginning of school. It only took him a day to decide that he preferred to make his way in life with his brain instead of his brawn.
La Ray was the first college-educated physical education teacher and basketball/track coach at San Juan High. The faculty at the high school in l939 consisted of Ernest Biggs, (Principal) JB Harris, Raymond Murdock, Minette Carlson, Lloyd Diamond and Carol Reynolds. There were no bus students at San Juan High in l939.
His first year as basketball coach his team consisted of Curtis Jones, Bud Nielson, Dean Guymon, Lyle Johnson, Devar Shumway, Norwood Porter, Rex Harvey, Arthur Rogers, Joe Sherman and Owen Burnham. Wayne Laws was the team manager.
Coach Alexander’s philosophy of building great basketball teams was to start working with boys as early as 7th and 8th grade. He spent much time with younger players and it paid off handsomely in some of the great teams he coached in later years.
During the first year of his marriage to Beverly, their entertainment came in the form of movies shown at the LDS Chapel. If you went on Wednesdays it only cost $1 per month.
La Ray got the idea of building a real movie theatre in Blanding. He approached Dr. Wesley Bayles about a partnership. Dr. Bayles put in $6,500 with the understanding that La Ray and Beverly would put in their savings of $4,500, run all aspects of the business, and take nothing for themselves until it was paid for.
The San Juan Theatre opened in August of l946, and showed Warner Brothers’ “Saratoga Trunk” starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. The theatre project cost $30,000.
The San Juan Theatre still stands on Main Street in Blanding and is the only indoor theatre in San Juan County.
During World War II, La Ray spent two years in North Africa and Europe as an officer attached to the Red Cross. He had many memorable and humbling experiences.
La Ray became the Principal of San Juan High School in l947. His dream was to turn the vacant field east of the high school into a first class athletic field for track and baseball. Many citizens in Blanding joined in building those facilities. In the spring it was used for track events. In the summer the whole community used it for baseball, softball, and social events.
The School Board decided to put the new high school building on La Ray’s beautiful athletic field. The area south of the new high school continued as a baseball field for years until the school board decided to make it into a parking lot.
La Ray was instrumental in getting bleachers, risers and an electric clock and scoreboard for the basketball gym.
The saddest day of his life was when his beloved wife, Beverly, passed away on September 8, l950, while giving birth to their second child, Beverly Pamela. He was overwhelmed by the goodness and kindness of the people of Blanding after Beverly’s passing.
La Ray was elected mayor of Blanding in l954 and served for four years. He was instrumental in getting Utah Power and Light to come to Blanding to replace the old worn out generator that was housed in what is now the city office building.
One of his proudest achievements as Mayor was the beautification of the Blanding City Cemetery. The city donated the four-inch water pipe which was installed by volunteer labor east of the high school and under the highway. Bud Nielson blasted the rock outcroppings.
Many Blanding citizens donated their time and money transforming Blanding’s old, weed filled cemetery into one of the most beautiful places in southeastern Utah. La Ray Alexander remained chairman of the cemetery district for 41 years.
In the early l950’s, La Ray began lobbying for a sewer system to serve all of Blanding. Some progress was made. However, after becoming mayor in l954, he spearheaded a bond vote, which passed and provided funds for the Creer Construction Company of Provo, UT to build a modern sewer system for the entire city.
Mayor Alexander worked to get the streets of Blanding paved. At that time the only paved road in town was the main street. All other roads were gravel. He initiated a cooperative street improvement program with San Juan County. The County put $40,000 into the project; the City of Blanding put in another $40,000 to start the paving program in 1955. In 1957, Eugene Shumway loaned the city $5,000, interest free, to finish the job.
Another important city improvement accomplished while La Ray was mayor was the improvement at the airport. At that time there was a short dirt airstrip with no services. After completion, the airport had a 4,800-foot paved runway, a building with offices and rest rooms and a tie-down area.
La Ray got his pilot’s license in Provo. He wanted to have a flight school in Blanding so he hired Harold Morris to be the flight instructor. Some of the first students were Fred Halliday, Bill Redd, Calvin Blake and Dick Smith. His daughter, Karen was the first woman in San Juan County to get her private pilot’s license. Pete Black was the youngest student ever to earn a license and had to wait until he was 16 to get it. La Ray took Fred Halliday in as a partner and they received a license to make charter flights, carrying passengers for hire.
La Ray loved coaching basketball. His greatest success came in coaching in l954, the year the Grayson Ward Team won the LDS All-Church championship. That meant that of the 1,200 teams from all over the Church, his Blanding boys were the best.
It brought Church-wide publicity and recognition to Blanding. Members of the championship team were Calvin Perkins, Richard Perkins, Dudley Rowley, Glen Rupp, Eugene Shumway, Connie Nielson, Kay Bradford, Calvin Blake and Kent Black.
As an 11-year-old boy, this writer can vividly remember the joy and pride that pervaded the Jensen home in Monticello. That great victory was something of an anomaly considering how Monticello usually felt about Blanding’s high school basketball victories. It may well be the greatest sports accomplishment in the history of San Juan County, and will never be forgotten by those who remember the euphoria that reigned supreme.
La Ray coached his Grayson Ward team for six years. They had a phenomenal run placing fifth in l953, first in l954, second in l955, eighth in l956, second in 1957 and ninth in 1959 in the huge All-Church Tournament.
It was the largest basketball tournament held anywhere in the world before or since. Eugene Shumway played on the team all six years. He was asked why the team had been so successful. He replied that there was an excellent spirit on the team, that Coach Alexander never brought a mistake a player had made to the attention of the fans or other players by his action on the bench.
After the 1959 school year, La Ray took a year’s leave of absence from the district and traveled in Europe for nine months. Upon his return, a lady he had his eye on had returned from her mission in Australia. He and Doris Mae Adams were married on June 7, l961. They are the parents of a daughter and two sons.
La Ray was called to be Bishop of the Blanding Second Ward in l963, and served faithfully until l970. It was an intensely spiritual experience for him and he recalled it with humility and satisfaction the rest of his life.He taught school at San Juan High for 12 more years, and took an early retirement in 1974. He went to work for the San Juan County Recreation Department as the supervisor of the Blanding and South San Juan areas. In addition to these duties he worked closely with Little League baseball.
He was instrumental (in his spare time) in creating the Walter C. Lyman Park north of Blanding, including the golf course, covered pavilion, restrooms, sprinkling system, electricity and the drilling of a water well. Many other citizens gave labor and equipment to the project, also.
He and Doris Mae served 10 years as extractors in the Monticello Stake Genealogical Library. This prepared them for two more full-time Family History missions (as a couple) in Salt Lake and Seattle, Washington.
When he was president of the Blanding Senior Citizens organization in l976, the group outgrew their meeting place in the basement of the County Library in Blanding. He started raising money for a new senior home.
The Blanding City Council decided to let the senior citizens have the medical building on 200 North. He served as president for a year, another two years as program director and then a year as the San Juan Representative on the Utah State Senior Citizens Advisory Council.
Still looking for things to do, he organized the annual Family Genealogical Basketball Tournament, which was popular and still running when his memoirs were published in 2004.
This program ran a significant surplus, and it was decided to use the extra money, along with other contributions of money and labor to built the Boy Scout building west of the North Chapel in Blanding. Eugene Shumway donated a substantial amount of money to the cause. The Scout “hut” has been used for many years as the meeting place of Boy Scout in Blanding.
He served two years as a member of the County Drug and Alcohol Committee; He ran the San Juan County South Residential Cancer Crusade with Barbara Tate. They enlisted the assistance of popular Channel 5 news anchor, Dick Nourse, and had much success.
He was chosen as the Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the year in l977.
He was the San Juan County Senior Citizen of the year in l986.
He received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the College of Eastern Utah on June 3, l992.
San Juan was fortunate that Mr. Alexander came to Blanding 72 years ago. His long life of service to others and his influence and legacy will enrich us all for generations to come.
Perhaps his most cherished honor came in 2003, when during the halftime of a basketball game at San Juan High School on January 11th, he was honored in a packed house and given a beautiful plaque that read, “Thank you for your example and the time you have spent helping the youth of Blanding.”
For a man who spent most of a lifetime in a classroom or a gymnasium or a baseball diamond with thousands of Blanding’s youth, that plaque and the love and respect that accompanied it was probably his most precious possession.
As his hero said long ago, “If ye have done it unto the least of these, my children, ye have done it unto me.”