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A love of words, history and Coca-Cola

Around 2015 or so, Ray Wyche leaned around the corner of his cubicle and waved a
pair of dollar bills at me.

“Jefferson, if you’ll go get us a Coca-Cola, I’ll split it with you. You can keep the

I did get the drink (and gave him a dollar in change, against his wishes). This became
a routine for us. Between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m., if Ray was at the office, we would split
a Coke. Ironically, I had just stopped drinking soft drinks, period, except for an
occasional Sprite, which he considered “nasty”. So we each drank one to two Cokes a
week, total.

He finally explained one day that at his most recent doctor’s appointment, he was
instructed to cease his 60-plus year habit of drinking a Coke a day. On his own, Ray
decided that drinking a half-a-Coke was acceptable.

I was not supposed to tell Miss Melba, but I suspect she knew, somehow.
Ray Wyche went home last week; he was “only” 79 when I met him on my first full
day at the News Reporter. He passed last week at age 92.

“We need some new blood around here,” he sometimes said. “I’m too old for this.
You’re here, so I can go home now and take a nap.”

Ray joked constantly about being old. I don’t think he ever really recognized his age
until the state told him (“Very politely,” he said) that he could not longer safely
drive. I had the privilege of chauffeuring him to work a couple times a week, where
he still proofread the paper, wrote an occasional feature or column, and kept up
with the agriculture beat as long as he could.

Our brief conversations on the way to and from the office were like opening a chest
of gold coins. He would share stories about this house or that business, or the
person who lived there who did something unusual or funny or tragic.

When we moved to Hallsboro, it was like tearing the lid off that chest and throwing
riches everywhere.

I couldn’t keep up with everything he shared about his beloved community, where
he was born and reared, survived the Depression, raised a family, was the
postmaster, built a home and earned a reputation as a true Christian gentleman of
the old school.

When he finally got in his mind where we lived, he related a story about how before
World War II, a railroad worker was trapped under the train one night, almost in
what is now our front yard. Another man fetched the doctor, but ran away as an
emergency amputation was performed right there on the tracks.

The problem was that the nervous good Samaritan ran away carrying the lantern
providing light for the surgery. The victim survived with one leg, but never forgave
the runaway railworker.

Mention a community, in Southeastern North Carolina, and Ray likely had a story
about it. When I mentioned covering a meeting in Atkinson, Ray immediately related
how a friend “from a well-respected Columbus County family” almost had an
embarrassing run-in with the law.

Sugar was strictly rationed at the time due to the war effort, and having more than
the law allowed was frowned upon. The gentleman in question was buying sugar in
bulk for his illicit whiskey still; he was returning to Columbus County from a similarly-shady character near Burgaw when he had a tire blow out near Atkinson one rainy evening. The bootlegger had his spare tire on a “Continental” rack on the bumper of his car, to make room for more sugar as well as the finished product,
which was in demand among the shipyard workers in Wilmington. The problem was that he lacked a tire tool.

Who should come along but a Highway Patrolman. The trooper changed the tire (in the rain, no less) shook the bootlegger’s hand, and continued on his way, either oblivious to a half-ton of sugar in the trunk, or not
wanting to deal with the extra paperwork. The bootlegger changed his ways a short time later.

In his typical manner, Ray downplayed his service in the last months of World War
II. He never saw combat, per se, but was part of the European Army of Occupation, a
tense period after the Nazis were defeated, but outlaws and the Russians were an
ever-present threat. He often mentioned how his unit had strict orders not to share
their rations with the hungry German civilians – but naturally, Ray and some of the
others did, anyway. That was just Ray’s heart.

Ray loved to tell a story, and he loved the English language. He had a particularly
pained, disgusted sound that he would make when he found an egregious error, and
he was not shy about thumbing through his massive old dictionary to chase down
the proper spelling or use of a particular word. It became a game for us sometimes,
as I tried to find more archaic words to challenge his vocabulary and his dictionary. I
didn’t win very often.

Ray had no problem questioning anyone about anything that came up in
conversation; he had an insatiable desire for all knowledge. He wanted to know how
things were done, why, who did them, and what happened afterward.

Ray Wyche had a love of the Bible. He regularly borrowed my office Bible, a large
print King James, to double-check a passage he knew by heart.

He noticed me reading one day, during a very dark time in 2012, and asked where I
was. I told him I was in II Timothy.

He quoted, almost word for word, from Chapter 4:

5 But watch thou in all things. Endure afflictions. Do the work of an evangelist, make
full proof of thy ministry.

6 for I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.

7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
Ray then added, with a smile, “But I’m not ready to go right now, Brother Jefferson.”
He didn’t quote verse 8, but he could have, with no shame:

8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a Crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the
righteous judge, shall give me at that day…

Ray Wyche was a Christian, gentleman, outstanding writer, proofreader,
grammarian, historian, Sunday school teacher, postmaster and inspector, raconteur,
scuba diver, WWII veteran, father, woodworker, husband, and mentor.
I was also blessed to be able to call him my friend.

Thank you, Brother Ray. We’ll take it from here. You go on and take that nap.

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