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On his desk is his nameplate: Dr. J. Ray Gill.
But on Sunday, Dr. Gill will receive an education credential that has eluded him his entire life – a high school diploma. Richmond R-XVI School District will bestow an honorary diploma to Gill at high school graduation, beginning at 3 p.m. at Spartan Field.
“My father may be the only person who got his PhD before his high school diploma,” said his son, John.
Gill attended seven schools, including Woodson Elementary in Richmond, in his eight years of education, as his family moved frequently after losing their Caldwell County farm in 1929. Although two teachers implored him to continue his education, Gill said in his book “My Story,” that while walking home after eighth grade graduation ceremonies, “I had my mind made up to be a farmer. I was going to make it on my own; no more school.”
Gill said he went broke twice before the age of 19. A hog disease decimated his stock, forcing him to sell nearly everything and start over, which he quipped as being “a little worse than broke.”
But mostly throughout his farming and financial career, Gill has worked hard and created success. In fact, Dr. Ray Gill became one of the biggest farmers in Ray County and a self-made multi-millionaire. He took calculated risks, such as growing some of the first soybeans in Ray County or being one of the first farmers in the county to irrigate farmland – both paying big dividends. He diversified his interests into gas, oil, stocks and municipal bonds, and owned and operated Gill Seed Company, producing certified seed and foundation seed for the University of Missouri.
An invitation to join the Exchange Bank Board of Directors by bank President W.F. Yates validated Gill’s life experiences in farming and business, which “gave me some confidence,” he said.
Gill also had an excellent eye for acquiring desirable land in the county – including property where Richmond High School now stands.
A family home on the hill was Gill’s vision, with a subdivision of homes to follow. However, by court order, it didn’t turn out that way.
“It was a beautiful spot … nice spot for a school, too,” he said.
In 1962, Gill purchased 240 acres of the old Wollard family land, just south of the city limits at that time. Two-thirds of this acquisition was sold to S.D. and Ardis Driskill and Dr. Franklin and Lenore Crozier, who built homes on their property. Gill kept the center portion of the land and began laying water and sewer lines for a new home for him and his wife Lucille. The three families joined together to create Southview Lake, which was originally called Lake LuArLe after the three wives. The city of Richmond was granted a right-of-way through Gill’s property to create South Street, which previously was an old wagon road. City sewer lines were then laid in the middle of South Street.
But in May 1968, the Richmond School Board had its sights on this property as one of three properties suitable for construction of a new school, according to a June 1972 Daily News article.
A year later, the former Richmond R-XIII School District filed suit to condemn his 80-acres to build a new high school. A three-member team of appraisers gave an original fair market value of $50,000; however the Gills’ filed an exception to the appraisal. A three-year court process ensued as to the value of Gill’s land for payment. In July 1972 a Carroll County jury awarded the Gills $90,000 for their tract of land, with the school district paying interest on the additional sum. After numerous attempts, a school bond passed in 1982 to construct a new high school on that site.
“Probably the most frustrating and horrible thing that ever happened to me was that I was going through life without an education, and I was more interested in seeing kids get a good education than most anyone realized,” Gill said in his book, “My Story.”
Gill remembers those as dark days and “feeling like I didn’t have a friend in the world.”
He said it wasn’t until he received a call from William Jewell College quite a few years later did he feel like “the Lord opened up a door.”
This man with eight years of formal education was asked to serve on the Board of Trustees at William Jewell College in 1984, and continues as Trustee Emeritus today.
“It brought me out of it and was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
Dr. Gill received the Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in September 2006 for his years of service to the college during the Yates-Gill College Union dedication ceremonies, where he and his wife were major contributors to its renovation. The couple also provides four to five annual William Jewell scholarships to county high school students who need financial assistance.
“Giving it away is so much fun, much better than making it,” Gill said.
Nearly 40 years have past since the land ordeal, and school district officials are acknowledging Dr. Gill for his contributions to the community and to education.
“He does value education and his work with William Jewell College shows that,” said Richmond R-XVI Superintendent Jim Robins. “We want him to feel an allegiance and bond to our school. Schools are all about having a partnership with the community.”
Robins said Gill’s honorary diploma is a result of many local people, especially Jerry McCarter.
William Jewell presented Gill with an honorary degree, and Richmond High School Principal Karen Southwick says it’s now the high school’s turn to show their appreciation.
“We need to follow suit and do the same thing for the wonderful things he’s done for people, and for his many contributions to the students of Ray County, helping them further their education at William Jewell,” she said.
“They’ve respected what he’s done with his life. Dr. Ray Gill has earned this diploma as a result of his life experiences, as witnessed by his success as a businessman, author and philanthropist,” Jerry McCarter said.
His son, John, and daughter, Christie, now run the large family farm operation. But Gill, now 87, is not retired; he’s found other work to do. Gill studies the stock market, manages municipal bonds and tends to his gas and oil properties at his Gill Enterprises’ office on Lexington Street. He is a student of the piano, attempting to master the challenging song, “Goodnight, My Someone,” from the musical, “Music Man.” Gill began piano lessons at age 82.
“Never quit learning and keep your life simple,” he said.
Photo: Dr. Ray Gill will receive an honorary high school diploma from Richmond High School on Sunday at graduation. (Photo by JoEllen Black/The Daily News)