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Ray Gill: A lifetime of learning overcame lack of formal education

By JoEllen Black, Publisher of the Richmond News

As we drove the roads of Ray County in his economical and fuel-efficient Ford, Ray Gill provided instruction on the new channel cuts in the Missouri River and what it might mean to future flooding. We surveyed his farmland nearby. He took great delight in what he saw. How many of us really have an intimate relationship with the land and have such a deep admiration for it? Ray did.

We meet people in different stages of their lives, and many times, we discover different people with different priorities. I met Ray in his 80s, years after back-breaking work was required to make him the man he was. He made his successes and wanted to create legacies and provide learning lessons. In many ways, Ray reminded me of my grandfather. Both men were forged out of the Great Depression that robbed them of continuing their education. But both were strong enough, though, to keep their wonderment of learning alive in their lives.

“Never quit learning and keep your life simple,” Ray told me in 2009.

He then began practicing the piano in his office at his Gill Enterprises before his piano lesson. He was 87 then.

Ray was a successful farmer. 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 he owned and operated Gill Seed Company, producing certified seed and foundation seed for the University of Missouri.

In his later years, he enjoyed playing the stock market – what he called his version of Las Vegas – creating nest eggs for his grandchildren.

He did all of this with just an eighth-grade education.

But as he wrote in his book, My Story, many didn’t understand his affinity for education and for students to receive a quality education.

“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.”

Something wonderful happened, though. A liberal arts college asked Ray to become a trustee of its college in 1984. He said he considered it “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

Twenty-two years later, he was bestowed a Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from William Jewell College.

Ray did a lot of giving during his earlier days, but he kept a low profile. But as he got older, that changed. He didn’t mind folks knowing he gave millions to William Jewell College or to Mayo Clinic’s Phoenix, Ariz. location. He certainly let students know he was there to help with college tuition at William Jewell. He provided four to five scholarships a year.

This was fun; this was the reward of hard work.

“Giving it away is so much fun, much better than making it,” Gill said.

It appeared his donations and generosity were personal. Mayo Clinic helped saved his brother’s life. William Jewell validated his intellect. He and his wife, Lucille, were instrumental in refurbishing Farris Theatre, a building Lucille’s grandfather help build. He considered it a high priority for Ray County to have a fine library, and he funded that well, too.

All of this, with an eighth-grade education.

“If you’re not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you,” is a famous line by Zig Ziglar, a motivational teacher and writer, another child of the Depression.

Ziglar might have written it, but Ray lived it, from which we can all take a lesson.

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