Ray Walker, ’35: Penn State’s Oldest Living Alumnus
When I walked into the Writing Room at the Nittany Lion Inn to interview the oldest living Penn State alumnus, I was not expecting the man who sat before me. Drinking a glass of chardonnay, he smiled, formally introduced himself, and immediately eliminated any reservations I previously had about talking to someone 83 years my senior.
Ray Walker is not your average 102-year old, or person “living their 103rd year,” as he likes to put it. Ray is the oldest living alumnus of Penn State, but you’d never know it by looking at him or even sitting down and having dinner with him. His charisma, sense of humor, and infectious laughter made him seem downright youthful.
I sat down with Ray and talked to him about his time at Penn State, and life thereafter — and he has one helluva story.
Ray was born on March 13, 1912 and was the middle child of three. His mother stayed at home, and his father was in the lumber and logging business. When Ray graduated from Penn State in 1935, he became the first person from the town of Bigler, Pennsylvania to get a college education. He went on to become a businessman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. Ray is not only the oldest, but also one of the most distinguished alumni of Penn State.
Ray (far right) posing for a family picture with his mother and sisters Marjorie and Elizabeth.
Penn State In 1935
To better picture Ray in his heyday, it’s important to understand how vastly different Penn State was 80 years ago.
“It’s too bad they’ve done away with some of the tradition — the upperclassmen really policed the freshmen and helped get them off on the right foot when they got to college, because of that tradition,” Ray said. “Reinstating that type of tradition today would be impossible.”
I looked at the 1935 La Vie to better understand what life was like for Ray during his time at Penn State:
- Penn State was not the Pennsylvania State University when Ray was here; it was the Pennsylvania State College.
- Total enrollment for the college reached 5,000 in 1935.
- There were separate Deans and Athletic Associations for men and women, and two class presidents — a male and female.
- Sororities had houses.
- The Collegian was published twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday.
- There was a comic magazine, called The Froth, that was “oozing with human and pleasant buffoonery to lessen the tribulations of the student body throughout the year.”
- The Student Handbook served the same purpose it does today, and was given to all freshman at the beginning of the year — but, it was published by the Christian Association and aptly known as the “Freshman Bible.”
The picture below is not Old Main in a sepia filter, it’s Old Main in 1935 — looking as beautiful and iconic as it does today.
There was a black tie event open to the entire senior class called the Senior Ball, which featured live music and dancing. There were similar events for underclassmen, including a Junior Prom and Soph Hop.
Dresses may have been longer for formal events like the Senior Ball, but the athletic shorts were much, much shorter.
Beaver Stadium did not exist in 1935, and neither did the world renowned student section.
Penn State actually had milk maids. The milking maids were the “proud prize winners in the milking contest held at the Farm Show last spring,” according to the 1935 La Vie.
But Penn Staters weren’t all that different in 1935. Students rallied the night before the Homecoming game in Syracuse and concluded the demonstration with a bonfire in front of the main gate.
An Active Student, Scholar, And Brother
Ray began school at Penn State the fall after he graduated from high school in 1931. He came to Penn State because he had a cousin here that was studying medicine, which he planned to pursue.
Unfortunately, Ray needed to pass two years of German courses before he could go to medical school.
“After flunking German twice, I decided I didn’t have bedside manners,” Ray said. “And I gave up being a doctor.”
So, Ray then changed his major to business, which at the time he said students called “Jewish engineering.”
During his four years at Penn State, Ray made time to get involved. He was the violin maestro of the campus symphony and played the cymbols in the ROTC band. His senior year, Ray was the photo manager of La Vie.
The Campus Symphony Ensemble in 1935.
But Ray’s biggest commitment on campus was to his fraternity and his brothers. Ray was a brother of Phi Kappa Tau and eventually served as chapter president.
The brothers of Phi Kappa Tau in 1935. Ray is seated in the first row, second from the left.
At that time, Ray said the fraternities paddled each other when they got out of line.
“I went through the paddle line a number of times,” Ray said, and chuckled.
This past year, Ray was inducted into the Phi Kappa Tau Hall of Fame. Ray is also the oldest known brother of Phi Kappa Tau in the nation. He still keeps in touch with the fraternity on campus.
Ray helped the fraternity with its Capital Campaign, which was geared toward reaching out to alumni for donations that would fund physical plant repairs, improvement projects, and scholarship endowments, Phi Kappa Tau brother Andrew Rider said.
Last summer, he had the brothers over to his house in Bigler for a pool party.
“Hearing stories about Ray and how active he is at the age of 102, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from him,” Rider said. “He was a very calm, approachable, and reverent man. He also had a great sense of humor and even asked about how social life is today and contrasted what is was like for him.”
The Business Student Becomes A Businessman
When the Great Depression hit, Ray received a telegram from his family that said he needed to come home immediately because there was no money to pay his tuition. In addition to his work as a logger, Ray’s father owned a small general store with his uncle that went bankrupt.
“I realized right then if I was going to get an education, I was going to have to dig in and get the money myself,” Ray said.
Ray, then 21, began selling eggs and potatoes to the fraternities on campus. At the time, there were 48 active fraternities, and 43 of them were buying eggs and potatoes from Ray on a monthly basis. His business eventually grew to include coal.
“I had the reputation of being one of the few college students to start sending money home from college to help my family,” Ray said.
As another way to make money, Ray arranged with the Dean of Men to open his fraternity house to board male students during the summer session in 1932. He took the men in, fed them, and gave them a cheap place to stay.
The Phi Kappa Tau house in 1935.
Because it went so well the first year, the following summer, the Dean of Men asked Ray to reopen the house again. About 10 days into the summer session of 1933, Ray was told the Dean needed to speak with him immediately. Ray said he “died a thousand deaths” walking into the Dean’s office.
Ray found himself in the middle of a slight scandal when the Dean informed him he needed to close his house down for the remainder of summer session. The Dean of Women had informed the Dean of Men that one of her women claimed that “she had intercourse with someone at the summer session house and was pregnant.”
Ray told the Dean he would evict whoever it was that had gotten the girl pregnant, so long as he didn’t lose this source of income and he didn’t leave everyone in the house without a place to stay. Unfortunately, the Dean told Ray the woman did not know the man’s name.
Ray asked the Dean to give him a week to try and sort out who the father was, and he agreed. Ray said that at the time, sex wasn’t openly talked about.
“Here I was, just a kid, asking fellas — some old enough to be my father — if they had intercourse in the house,” Ray said. “I think they thought I was nuts.”
He went back to the Dean of Men’s office a week later, with no further information on who the father could be. The Dean told Ray, “Just forget about it; it turns out she was just a little late.”
Ray’s time at Penn State set him on the track for the rest of his life. If it weren’t for changing his major to business, and opening his own business on campus, the story of Ray Walker would be a lot different.
Life After Penn State
Ray’s senior picture in the 1935 La Vie.
After graduation, Ray wasted no time putting his degree to work. He founded the Bradford Coal Company the same year he graduated, in 1935. One of his first major clients was Penn State, and his company supplied the college with coal. Being in business with the college helped Penn State remain a part of his life after he graduated, Ray said.
The Bradford Coal Company grew to become a successful corporation with clients all over the world. Upon his retirement in the early 80’s, the company was one of the state’s largest coal distributors.
His entrepreneurship continued throughout his life, and his resume grew to include the ownership of numerous hotels, trucking companies, a lumber and supply company, an oil drilling company, and the Penn Central Analytical Laboratory.
Following his company’s success, Ray became a major benefactor of Penn State, Mount Aloysius College, and Bucknell. For his 101st birthday, Ray made a $101,000 gift to Penn State.
“You reach a point in life when you realize it’s time to give back to the community and share your good fortune with others,” Ray said.
Ray never let his work as a businessman keep him from giving back. But he didn’t just donate his money — he donated his time.
During the Gulf War, Ray sent footballs autographed by players and coaches, including former head football coach Joe Paterno, to Penn Staters in the military.
“I continued playing the violin until I got arthritis,” said Ray. “When I couldn’t play anymore I donated my Stradivarius pedigree violin to the music department at Penn State.”
Ray served on the National Development Council, Penn State’s highest fundraising body, in 1996. That same year, he was named a Distinguished Penn State Alumnus by the Alumni Association.
Ray at the Distinguished Alumni luncheon. Photo courtesy of Penn State.
In the pamphlet given out at the luncheon, it said Ray was given the award “for his myriad entrepreneurial accomplishments, for unstinting and generous support of Penn State, and for the example of leadership, energy, kindness and generosity he has made for others to emulate.”
A Family Man
Ray and his wife Louise were married in 1940, and spent 66 years together before she passed away in 2006.
The two opened the Walker Gardens out of their home in Bigler as a fundraising effort. Each year they opened their garden for charities and helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for community improvement efforts.
The Walker Gardens are still open a few times each spring and fall for guests. They have a year-round staff of gardeners to take care of the dozen of acres of land. Although Ray can’t be out there to help with the planting anymore, he uses his green thumb to choose the flowers they will plant and where they’ll go in the garden.
Ray walking the grounds of the Walker Gardens.
Together, Ray and Louise co-founded a number of youth activities together in their hometown, including the Bigler Playground, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the Bigler YMCA.
In addition to their work as civic and youth activists, the Walkers were politically active — the two hosted George Bush, Sr. at their home in 1980.
Ray and Louise were also avid travelers. In 1953, they were selected to represent the state of Pennsylvania at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of England, where they met Winston Churchill. In 1968, they rode the entire Trans-Siberian Railroad more than 8,000 miles across Russia. Ray has visited every continent, including Antarctica.
Together, Ray and Louise have four children, 10 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild, with another on the way. In the five generations of Walkers, a handful have gone to Penn State for undergraduate and master’s degrees. With such a large family, Ray makes a newsletter to keep everyone informed of what’s going on. He calls it “The Walkie Talkie.”
“I was very inspired with his life and everything he has done and still plans to do,” Rider said. ” I feel that everyone should strive to live as Ray Walker does and never stop living his life to the fullest even at such an old age.”
Ray shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Last year, Ray became the oldest person in the state of Pennsylvania to receive a speeding ticket — at 101-years-old.
Ray said people often ask him the secret to his longevity. “When I retired, I retired to something,” he said. Ray has dedicated his life to his family and giving back to the community.
“My advice to current Penn Staters is to work 48 hours a day, eight days a week,” Ray said. “That’s what I did!”