Columnist

Marcus Ray dies at age 90, remembered as ‘Great Falls’ John Wayne’

July 8, 2014 

— Marcus Ray did not so much walk as saunter for a quarter-century through his adopted hometown.

His big hands hung from his arms like first baseman’s mitts. His police hat rested at just a bit of an angle atop his head. A pistol hung in the holster at his side, the leather gunbelt creaking a bit.

The eyes meant business.

When Ray walked through the southeastern Chester County town of Great Falls, or extricated himself from the town’s police car, everybody would take notice.

“He was Great Falls’ John Wayne,” said Charlie Jordan, a nephew. “Marcus Ray was the law.”

And so much else in Great Falls, a town of just under 2,000 people along the Catawba River that was home to hundreds more back before the textile mills shut down.

Fire chief, mayor, community activist, town cheerleader. You name it, Marcus Ray did it.

Ray, who died Sunday at the age of 90, leaves behind a legacy of service almost unmatched.

Great Falls is a small place. It had one doctor for years, the beloved and late Hollis Snead. One dentist, still there, equally as cherished, Laurens “Doc” Fort. And it had Ray – a U.S. Navy veteran who volunteered for the service despite being too young and who was part of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 –

Ray was “Chief.”

Andy Griffith played fictional sheriff Andy Taylor of the small town of Mayberry. Marcus Ray was the real thing.

“It seemed like he did it all in his life,” said Ray’s wife of 64 years, Dot. “He was chief of police, on the fire department, then he was the mayor. He was just about everything in Great Falls at one time or another.”

Ray was the first licensed polygraph examiner in South Carolina. But his steely eyes served as Great Falls’ real lie detector test.

He came to Great Falls from Winnsboro, and Columbia before that, to become the newly incorporated town’s first police chief in the mid-1960s. At that time, Great Falls was booming, with three huge textile manufacturing plants that ran 24 hours a day.

Wearing a badge came only after years spent working on the railroad, where he forged that iron back and callused hands and belief in right and wrong.

For 50 years, Ray lived in the same house on Maple Street, in the shadow of the huge J.P Stevens Mill #3. People would knock on his door at all hours with small complaints about scuffles or money or someone having too much to drink, and big problems involving cuttings and thievery and someone having far too much to drink.

The Chief would handle them all from that front porch.

With the hard labor in Great Falls’ mills came hard drinking and some hard living – and Marcus Ray was the man to keep it all in check. He walked and drove the streets and expected all to follow the law. He put plenty of people into two tiny cells at the back of the tiny Great Falls Police Department long enough for those people to know they wanted to straighten up and not come back.

And he still found time to serve a stint as chief of the town’s volunteer fire department.

After retiring Ray ran for and won the mayor’s job, serving from 1994 to 1998. He pushed for development after the mills had closed. When the J.P Stevens Mill across the street from Ray’s home burned in 2006 – a fire so huge that half the town had to be evacuated, so huge that national TV news took notice – Ray helped move people out – at the age of 82.

“He was the one who called the fire department after seeing the fire that first morning,” said Dot Ray. “He wanted to fight the fire himself.”

Ray pushed for cleanup of the old contaminated mill site.

“Great Falls can come back with young people,” he said in a 2011 interview.

The closing of the mills and the construction of Interstate 77 – which all but dried up Charlotte-to-Columbia traffic on U.S. 21 through the middle of town – choked much of the life from Great Falls and sent most of its young people to live in Rock Hill or elsewhere.

Still, Ray believed in the people of Great Falls.

“Marcus Ray was a good citizen for this community,” said Archie Lucas, a friend for decades who represents Great Falls on the Chester County Council. “He cared about Great Falls and its people.”

Great Falls Mayor Lee Montgomery said he will ask the Town Council to adopt a resolution honoring Ray when it meets on July 17.

“Everybody knew and respected Marcus Ray,” Montgomery said.

After retiring, Ray worked security jobs and as a convenience store clerk, where his easy manner and trustworthiness were well known. He once found a woman’s purse in the ladies’ room while cleaning up and mailed it back to the woman – in another state. For mothers with little kids but no money, he bought milk and bread.

He just liked to be in the mix of people.

After Ray’s death on Sunday and all day Monday, people stopped by the mill house on Maple Street. Nobody needed directions or a map.

The whole town knew where the Chief lived, because seemingly everybody’s momma or granddaddy had trudged up to see him at one time or another to have a crime solved or a problem fixed and never had been turned away.

“John Wayne” never shut the door on people who needed him.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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