|10/1/2021 11:34:00 AM|
Ray ans Anne Hazel celebrating the publication of Ray's latest novel.
|Dean M. Laux|
He’s A Norman Rockwell Fan
When Englewood resident Ray Hazel talks or writes about matters historical (and sometimes hysterical), he likes to invoke the name of Norman Rockwell, America’s most prolific illustrator and painter, known most famously for his cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post and Boys’ Life. Rockwell was able to romanticize moments of everyday life in hometown America in a way that struck a chord with viewers—a chord they could play ever afterward in their minds. And Ray recognizes many “Norman Rockwell moments” he experienced in the process of growing up.
His hometown was Massena, NY, a rural settlement on the St. Lawrence River just south of the Canadian border. It was devoted largely to agriculture, with dairy farms and cow pastures dotting its landscapes, but it was also not far from a large Alcoa Aluminum plant that served as a lighthouse in attracting immigrants from Europe in the years after World War II.
“We lived in a diverse neighborhood,” Ray says. “There were people from Poland, Armenia, Italy, Ireland. They had been coming over since the late 1800s and had opportunities to get decent jobs in the plant or the powerhouse on the river. My friends came from diverse backgrounds, but we didn’t hurl epithets at each other—Wop or Mick or Polak. We didn’t think of ourselves that way. We were a community. And we kids were free-roaming kids, just like free-roaming chickens. Our parents let us be who we were gonna be.”
Ray had no brothers and only one sister, Cindy, who was four years younger, but he was nonetheless born into a large family: His Dad Leon had seven brothers and three sisters, and uncles, aunts and cousins populated the area of Massena he lived in, known locally as Skunk Ridge. Yep. That sounds like something out of Al Capp’s comic strip, Li’l Abner. But to Ray it was “a neighborhood in the middle of nowhere,” filled with Norman Rockwell moments.
He wasn’t a great student, he says, because he had other interests. “My youth revolved around nature, sports and school, in that order.” He enjoyed playing with his friends and taking long walks through the woods and meadows around Massena with his constant companion, a foxhound named Freckles. Ray was good at hockey and baseball, and he admits to being pretty cocky. “My ambition,” he says, “was to play shortstop for the New York Yankees, like Phil Rizzuto,” a major league baseball hall of famer. He didn’t make it, but how many people do? It’s good to have high aspirations.
Ray also liked writing and was interested in history. “Our English teacher, Mrs. Austin, got us reading books by Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Jack London. She allowed me to express myself and be creative in writing. She was an inspiration, except when she threw erasers at us to get our attention.”
He graduated from Massena High School in 1961 and went on to Albany Business College, where he earned an associate’s degree in business administration. Having worked on the college newspaper, he landed a job with the Massena Observer as a cub reporter and got to polish his writing skills. “The trouble was,” he says, “they just wanted plain, factual reporting, and I wanted to put some color and creativity into my writing.” Eventually it became clear to him that he’d have no career as a reporter—right after he’d had a dust-up with his boss for embellishing the obituaries in the Observer’s editions and drafting a tongue-in-cheek article promoting a beagle for the Mayor’s job.
What to do next? As a kid he had built up a little business raising rabbits and selling both their offspring and their rabbit poop (a useful fertilizer) to the locals in Skunk Ridge. So he gave a try to retail sales, working in a men’s shop in Massena. He was good at it and enjoyed it, but it was not the career he wanted, now in his early twenties.
As a nature lover who came from a family of nature lovers, he had taken up nature photography. “I had a passion for going into places where no one else would ever go,” he says, and he became good enough at capturing the wilderness with his camera that he won numerous awards at juried art shows and held several private showings. “I also kept a diary, and I would jot down interesting things that happened to me. I liked historical fiction, and I knew that someday I would write a historical novel.” But writing historical fiction was still far in his future, and he was to face much adversity before he could do so.
There was a failed marriage, and a drinking problem that cost him his job and made him probe his life and lifestyle. But after a five-year struggle he overcame his affliction and was to remain cured for the rest of his life. He got a job at Alcoa as a mill helper and worked his way up the ladder to corporate management, first supervising his fellow workmen at an ingot plant, then becoming night plant supervisor, later an operating systems supervisor and then moving into R&D for experimental casting and finally becoming an operations specialist in charge of quality assurance for the company. He was successful because he was fair, he was respectful of others—whether they agreed with him or not—and he was a man of his word. Those were traits he valued and would stress in his later writings.
Ray retired in 1998 at age 55. “I had been contributing articles to a lot of magazines, mostly outdoor magazines, and I never wrote about how you do things. I wrote about why you do things,” he says. “If you search for why people do things, you find out who they are and what their values are.”
He has so far written and published six novels (some of them illustrated by his partner and soulmate, Anne Butler), all of them based on his personal experience, and all of them stressing the values of love for family, neighbors and our canine friends. “The main characters in my books are immigrants whose families came here,” he says.” They made great sacrifices and overcame great adversity to provide a new life for their children and to become good citizens of their new country.” He confesses that he’s changed some names to protect the innocent … and the guilty, but all of his settings are historically factual.
Ray is a storyteller, painting heartwarming pictures of life with all its vicissitudes in the 20th century. Words are his paintbrush, and it’s not surprising that his works evoke the same emotions as the wondrous illustrations of Norman Rockwell. If you liked Mr. Rockwell, you’ll enjoy what Ray has to say as well.
Ray’s novels are available at The Coastal Emporium on Dearborn Street and at Rayhazel.com.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: email@example.com. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person’s background.
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