GAYS MILLS - Ray Hadley was quiet magic. He was subtle, hilarious, without judgment, talented and my grandpa.
As I sit down to write this–for probably the third time, I am challenged by how I can fit him into 800 words. He has been so many things to so many different people, wrapping my head around his passing has been nearly impossible.
My Grandpa Ray was first the son of a depression-era, sharecropping, violinmaker, who himself lived to be 102. He was a father to four daughters and two sons. He carried the loss of his beloved wife Connie and two eldest daughters quietly in his heart, paying tribute to them through song. He was a grandpa who taught us how to find morels, play a good prank, bid on a dollar box at an auction, spot a fake marble, sing, play, and be a welcoming and open friend to everyone you meet. He was a lifelong performer and loved to sit down and pick and sing for anyone who’d listen. He loved to be surrounded by his friends, family and dogs. Although he never had much, he always made what he did have worthwhile.
Before he was ‘Ray Hadley–the Last Kickapoo Hillbilly; he was ‘Ray Rotten–the Pack Rat.’ He drove a long, yellow Cadillac with his little rubber rat mounted on the dash. We always got to ride in the front seat with grandpa because the back and trunk were usually packed full of boxes of treasure from flea markets, auctions and rummage sales. My car usually looks the same–thanks to his influence.
I used my grandpa’s good sense of humor and perpetual rummage sale to my advantage once, when I had a high school English class assignment.
For the final project in my novels class, we could read a book of our choosing and then would receive an extra helping of credit if there were a movie to accompany the reading. I had read a biography of Jim Morrison. However, upon reviewing the movie ‘The Doors,’ I realized it was certainly not appropriate for school. So, I decided to make my own short film chronicling the last few days of the Doors lead singer Jim Morrison’s life and since there is a dispute about his death, we made alternate endings. One of those endings was that Jim Morrison was in fact an old junk collector living outside of Soldiers Grove.
I gave no prior warning to my grandpa about my request and just showed up with a couple of Doors records and a curly brown wig and asked my grandpa to briefly come out to the garage, where his perpetual rummage sale took place, and pretend to be the Lizard King.
I ran down to the bottom of the yard, so I could narrate a dramatic discovery of “Jim Morrison the Lizard King, FOUND ALIVE! Selling junk...er...Antiques out of his garage!”
There stood my grandpa in his garage, donning a brown curly wig, shirtless, pawing through his records. He proceeded to pluck a Doors album from the pile and acted dumbfounded, as though he just woke up from a dream. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed, “That’s ME! I’m the Lizard King! I’m Jim Morrison! Don’t you believe me?!”
The film was a massive hit, and needless to say thanks to him I passed my class.
My Grandpa also had a deep connection to the Kickapoo Valley. He was proud to be a hillbilly and could always be found walking the hills or fishing the river’s banks. My dad always said, “He wasn’t one to let the grass grow under his feet.”
Ray Hadley was a forager for all seasons. I always remember his arms forever scratched by brambles. He loved to get his family out in the woods picking morels or ginseng and felt a deep connection to the land behind his home. He could tell you how many pounds each year he had picked off of each tree or when he planted the seed for the root of ‘sang he was digging.
The first time he took me, I was so excited to have found a 'sang plant on my own. He handed me the screwdriver that he used for digging and let me get to work. I carefully dug and dug for what felt like forever, only to have the large root break off in my hand as I tried to pull it out. He had let me carefully dig a root of Fool’s ‘Sang–aka Sarsaparilla. He stood there quietly chuckling before walking me a few feet over to the real root.
Perhaps one of my grandpa’s most impressive displays of his connection with the land around him, or maybe it was his ultimate prank, was his ‘Magic Morel.’
In the evening hours of the summer time–as the sun began to set, a shadow would appear in the perfect shape of a morel mushroom on the back of his garage. As a child, we would all gaze in amazement. We would stand next to it for photos and try to debunk whatever crazy thing was casting this image. We would inspect all around it, stand in front of it, and badger my grandpa for answers. He would simply shrug and just say, it’s magic.
Although I am a skeptic at heart and know how much my grandpa loved a good joke, the ‘Magic Morel’ is one thing I like to believe has no explanation. I like to believe it was my grandpa’s own form of quiet hillbilly magic.
We hope all of you who have known my Grandpa as a friend, family or just a fan will be able to join us in celebrating his life on Saturday, May 25 at the Main Street Community Building in Gays Mills. The celebration will start at 1 p.m. A service will begin at 2 p.m. with storytelling, open mic music time, and a potluck lunch to follow. All are welcome to come, pick and sing and celebrate the life of the old Kickapoo Hillbilly–Ray Hadley.