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Striking up a friendship

When it comes to good buddies, Austin bowling alley mogul Jerry Ray ’58 has thrown a near-perfect game.

Austin bowling alley mogul Jerry Ray '58 and wife Betty.

Striking up a friendship

When it comes to good buddies, Austin bowling alley mogul Jerry Ray ’58 has thrown a near-perfect game.

Three decades ago, Jerry Ray ’58 shook hands, and an Austin institution was born.

Today, if you sit long enough at the the Dart Bowl Steak House, Ray figures you’ll eventually see everyone in Austin — Willie Nelson, George W. Bush, Sandra Bullock, George Strait.

A surprising statement, considering the dŽcor here is early bowling alley.

But listening to the pins tumble from the senior bowlers during lunch turns out to be a nice complement to the old booths, the pedestal tables, the 8-foot snake skin over the bar, the homemade rolls.

It’s comfortable, like an old friend. And there are many who say that the owner of the Dart Bowl himself is an institution of sorts in Austin, and around TCU alumni circles, too. He’s Jerry with those smiling brown eyes to some, Mr. Ray with the deep, rumbling voice to others.

But to most everyone else, he’s just Jerry Ray, and the two rarely travel apart.

Adopted as an infant, Ray was the only child of James and Velma Ray. The boy grew up in Freeport watching his father come home from the chemical plant every night reeking from ethyl benzene.

“I could never work as hard as my daddy did,” he said.

But Ray would come close. Ray’s grandparents, Lillie Peacock and James Joshua Ray met at AddRan College where J.J. was captain of the football team in 1899. So it was natural when it came time for college that Jerry went off to TCU.

Jerry jokes he had the lowest GPA to ever escape TCU.

“My senior year, one professor told me grades weren’t really important,” he said. “Here I’d been bleeding to get out of school and then he goes and tells me grades didn’t matter!”

After college, Ray operated a string of small bars in Fort Worth for a few years. At age 30, he met Betty Herring during a visit home.

“He was a piece of work,” said Betty, his wife of 36 years. “I thought he was obnoxious and overbearing.”

But persistent. They married three months later, and Jerry Ray took his bride-to-be to Mexico for the ceremony.

“Do you know why?” Betty said, laughing. “He was afraid of needles and we didn’t have to have a blood test in Mexico.”

It was ironic that years later he would win a battle with leukemia and overcome that fear.

In 1965, Jerry Ray began managing the Forest Park Lanes on University Drive. A year later, he put an ad in the Wall Street Journal for a bowling business partner.

Harry Peterson of Austin was one of 72 responses. The partnership would eventually own four alleys in Austin and become a major player in the community.

After “officially” retiring in March, Ray turned the management of the business over to John Donovan ’91 (RM), Peterson’s grandson.

Always ambitious, Ray brought nationally televised bowling tournaments to Austin and opened his alleys for fund-raising efforts and for various civic groups.

Despite his insistence that he doesn’t deserve the honors, he’s been recognized frequently by his bowling peers as well as for his community service to groups like Meals on Wheels, Austin Food Bank, American Heart Association, Lukemia Foundation, Helping Hands Home for Children and Rotary.

In 1983, he served on TCU’s national alumni board, then as the group’s president. He’s been a member of the school’s top philanthropic group, the Clark Society, since its inception.

“Next thing you know, you’re on the Board of Trustees, and your friends can’t believe it,” he said, a chuckle rolling from his chest. About 20 of those friends — all former fraternity brothers — showed up to applaud, though, when Ray was recognized by the Alumni Association as the 1999 Valuable Alumnus, including Fort Worth Mayor Ken Barr ’64 and fellow trustee Luther King ’62.

“On a scale of one to 10, Jerry is a 10,” King said. “There’s not a phony bone in his body. He’s very consistent — with his work and with his friendships. Jerry is always there, very steady, a great person.”

Now in the first few days of his golden years, Ray said he’s looking forward to time with family and friends. He and Betty plan to travel — a trip to Italy is on the books — and he’s going to take up a new hobby.

“I fished once,” he said, then explained that his friends presented him with a new fishing pole at his retirement party in the spring. “I won’t take up golf, and some of these old geezers here want me to go fishing with them.”

When asked the secret to success, Jerry Ray didn’t even pause. “Make friends and be lucky . . . . I’ve made a living doing that because I’m not very bright, let me tell you.”

Many would argue, but when Jerry Ray’s hook dips in the water in the days to come, you can be sure his friends will be at his side.