By CHRIS AGEE
Retired 29th District Judge Jerry D. Ray said the usual morning ritual of bringing in the newspaper led to a shock Dec. 30 as he discovered he was named the Index's Man of the Year.
"I was absolutely surprised," he said. "There were several close friends who, as I think back on it, were acting like girls in the sixth grade. [They were] dying to tell me but nobody spoiled the surprise."
The announcement came just two days after Ray named his successor, Santo attorney Mike Moore. Ray served 12 years as district judge, following eight years as district attorney.
After spending much of the past two decades at the Palo Pinto County Courthouse, Ray said his retirement has not yet begun in earnest.
"It's only been 10 days," he said in an interview Thursday, adding a busy schedule has not afforded him "a normal day yet."
Even in retirement, Ray said he plans to continue serving as a part-time judge.
"Texas has a neat system whereby they utilize retired judges to be assigned as visiting judges to sit in courts anywhere in the state," he said. "That way you can fill in as needed if there's a judge on vacation, a conflict of interest, or there's just a huge backlog and an empty courtroom somewhere."
Though he was an experienced attorney in private practice prior to being elected district attorney, Ray said his transition into the role of prosecutor led to some eye-opening realizations.
"When I went to the courthouse, I became more acutely aware of crimes against children," he said. "It really shocked me – even being fairly worldly – as to how much abuse of children there was."
In response, Ray was instrumental in forming the county's Court Appointed Special Advocates program.
"It invites the layperson into the trial arena in some respects, therefore I was somewhat hesitant to do it," he said. "I took a gamble and it turned out to be just great, a helpful tool to me as a judge where [volunteers] are my eyes and ears."
In his early days as district attorney, Ray said he also witnessed the increasing prevalence of dangerous drugs in the county.
"When I started prosecuting 20 years ago, it was not long after that there was the explosion, if you will, of the methamphetamine phase and the 'nazi method' of cooking in rural locations and how that destroyed lives and started dominating the courtroom," he recalled.
Despite consistently presiding over cases involving the county's most serious offenders, Ray said his view of this community has not suffered.
"I don't think it has soured me or skewed me in any way," he said. "I don't think we're that different in a negative way from other communities. I think we have a lot of positive things that separate us from other communities, but we've got our share of crime."
He recalled prosecuting 11 murder cases in just the eight years he served as district attorney, explaining a rural area like Palo Pinto County can be affected by the same criminal behavior as much more populous regions.
Though those who worked with him throughout his career would disagree, Ray said he doesn't feel he deserved to be named Man of the Year.
"One of my first reactions other than surprise and shock, was to demand a recount," he said about learning of the honor. "I fully understand that I have had high-profile positions – the kind of jobs voters are entitled to look at under a microscope. I recognize that and I recognize that I worked hard at them. After all, I was just doing my job; I don't think I deserve an award like Man of the Year."
He also credited his support staff throughout his career for their contribution to his successes.
"Nobody can enjoy the kind of public service career I have without a whole lot of support," he said. "In reference to my whole career, the entire time I was in private practice, I had one secretary, Ellen Benge, who still lives here in Mineral Wells."
For the majority of his time as district attorney, Ray said he relied heavily on his only assistant, Sue Moore.
"She and I went to the district attorney's office 20 years ago and we just kind of made it up as we went along," he said.
Ray said numerous hardworking, dedicated court staff members have made an indelible mark on his career.
"When you start naming people, you start leaving people out," he said, offering his appreciation of all those with whom he has worked.
Looking back on his career, Ray said he is reminded of a quote by Theodore Roosevelt: "Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."
Ray explained, "That's what I've been blessed with," noting that receiving recognition as Man of the Year is an added bonus.
"Since the Index was so kind in giving me that honor, it is very gratifying to have your body of work to be evaluated by others who think it has value and worth," he said. "I appreciate that."