By Megan Graham, Lamar White, Jr., Heather Miller, and Cayman Clevenger, Senior Ministers of Social Media and Creative Marketing for the Ray Nichols Memorial Working Group.
Ray Nichols took and shared thousands of photographs, documenting nearly every event he attended and the stories of nearly every person he met. But he never referred to himself as a writer or photojournalist or even a documentarian (though he was all three). On his LinkedIn profile, he listed his current jobs as, among other things, Development Intern for The Lens, Photography Intern for The Trumpet, Minister of Social Networking for the Poynter Institute, and Evangelist for the New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation.
Ray was a superconnector, a sense-maker, a builder of human infrastructure, an inimitable and prolifically talented lobbyist for the marginalized and the overlooked.
Yesterday, after a brief illness, he passed away at Ochsner Hospital in New Orleans. He was 73.
“(Ray) was a great friend to me and in the trenches with neighborhood leaders throughout the city,” wrote New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. “He was a tireless advocate for what he believed was important, and a dedicated philanthropist.”
For nearly 30 years, from May 1983 to December 2012, Ray served on the Board of Directors for Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Louisiana, spearheading a program in housekeeping training that resulted in the creation of hundreds of jobs for the physically or developmentally disabled. He spent 24 of those years also actively volunteering for the United Way.
Ray was especially proud of his work as a founding board member of Priestley Charter School and serving as president of Maple Area Residents, Inc. (MARI) in 2004.
A decade ago, Ray first met Drew Curtis, a bestselling author, former candidate for Governor of Kentucky, and the mastermind behind the news aggregate blogsite, Fark.com, the first “indie blog” to earn more than $1 million a year in profit.
“As someone who likes to stir shit up himself, Ray and I got along instantly,” Drew tells the Bayou Brief. “Ray, however, was one of those rare people whose instigation targeted public figures and institutions that badly needed targeting. He knew who he wanted to go after, and he assembled the resources to do it. He found kindred souls doing the same thing, and helped them do their jobs better. Every single person he introduced me to was trying to change the world for the better, and Ray spent the majority of his time trying to help them achieve their goals. He was a disrupter in the truest sense of the world.”
While Drew holds up Ray as a role model for the previous generation, Ray believed Drew was a role model as well.
“If every member of Ray’s generation had remained a punkass after they grew up like Ray did, the world would be a much better place. I’m glad he never stopped fighting the system,” Drew wrote. “And I’m also glad he inspired and enabled hundreds of others to do the same. His legacy will live on through them.”
New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno also became close friends with both Ray and his wife Bev.
“He lived his life as a strong advocate for equality and fairness,” Moreno wrote in a statement posted on Facebook. “Ray loved New Orleans and was always an encouraging voice to those of us who work hard on its behalf. This is a big loss.”
Throughout his life, Ray was never afraid to speak truth to power or to call out bigotry and hatred whenever he saw it. In Louisiana, that can sometimes verge on being a full-time job, which is why his passion and commitment, his seemingly effortless energy and enthusiasm, and his deep and fierce loyalty for all of those who gravitated into his orbit will be genuinely missed by the thousands who had the privilege of calling him a friend.
“The loss of Ray Nichols is one that is felt deeply throughout our Democratic Family,” state Sen. Karen Carter-Peterson told the Bayou Brief. “Ray inspired us to be better, to fight harder and to stick up for those who needed us most and when we needed a kick in the pants, Ray was there. Rest in power.”
A former HR executive who began “enjoyin’ retirement” at the age of 44, Ray spent the remaining three decades of his life connecting people who knew how to write about our most important problems with people willing to think creatively about how to best solve those problems.
When he was eighteen years old, Ray enlisted in the United States Air Force, where he was assigned as a Sentry Dog Handler. During his first year and a half, however, he spent the bulk of his time securing the 27-mile-long perimeter fence at a base in the Philippines. “Since other obligations resulted in only three to four Dog Handlers being free to conduct these duties, I can’t claim any major successes,” Ray wrote.
He moved back to the states in 1965 and didn’t want to waste another minute. He turned 20 in October, and a month later, he tied the knot with the girl from Abbeville he knew would forever be the love of his life, 19-year-old Beverly “Bev” Richard.
“I make friends; Bev keeps ‘em,” Ray would say, his face always beaming with pride when he talked about Bev.
Three years later, when his stint was finally over, Ray returned to Acadiana and enrolled at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), earning a Bachelor’s of Science in Management in 1971.
Ray would spend the next dozen years working his way up the corporate ladder until he decided to hang his own shingle and launch the Crescent Group, a consulting firm specializing in human relations management, in 1984.
“When we started The Crescent Group, Ray had three goals: to make a difference, to support clients he cared about, and freedom. For the rest of his life, he lived each day manifesting those goals,” says his former business partner and longtime friend Rebecca Ripley. “Ray was a consummate thinker, committed to making this world—and especially New Orleans—a better place.”
By 1990, however, he was ready to try out a different line of work.
More than fifteen years before there was Facebook or Twitter or anything remotely resembling the smartphones of today, Ray Nichols was connecting people. He would spend the remainder of his life contributing to the public good — and boasting about the German Shepherd dogs that Ray’s Facebook friends grew to know and love: Willie, Elza and Rocco.
If you were lucky enough to raise a glass or share a meal with Ray Nichols, it meant he believed in you, that he would be a champion for you, and that you could count on his unyielding support. It did not matter whether you were on your way in or out of Louisiana.
In 2008, Damien LaManna co-founded Net2no, also known as “Net Squared New Orleans,” the so-called “granddaddy of the tech startup” in the city and a way for a diverse group of innovators and social entrepreneurs to virtually collaborate on a range of projects and ideas. Damien, a native of Buffalo, New York, moved to New Orleans after graduate school in an attempt to do something that had never been done before.
Ray was all-in.
“In a city full of unique characters, Ray Nichols managed to stand out. He was a founding patron of Net2no, and the truth is Jessica Rohloff and I couldn’t have done any of it without him,” Damien tells the Bayou Brief. “I’ve lived in a few cities since New Orleans, and literally everywhere I go I find someone who not only knew Ray, but loved him. I don’t know how one human could change so many lives, but somehow, he found a way.”
Net2no was the most successful project of its kind in the nation, growing its membership from 30 people to more than 700 in one year.
Ray had the uncanny ability to spontaneously forge friendships, to keep you in his orbit, to continuously celebrate your successes, and to let you know that he was proud to be your friend.
“I’d rather have lunch with smart kids than hang on the golf course with balding Republicans,” Ray would say with an unabashed grin.
Ray and Bev never had children of their own, but they mentored and uplifted countless young people who owe their success stories to Ray and Bev Nichols.
“I have never in my life worn a hat so often as in the years I have known Ray Nichols. I have also rarely felt as supported, as honored, and as loved as Ray’s friendship made me feel,” said Laura Paul, executive director of lowernine.org. “His unconditional positive regard has been my saving grace on more occasions than I can count, and his unflinching commitment to me, to my work, and to the work it can sometimes take just to put up with me as a friend has, over the years, lifted me up and given me the strength I needed to carry on over and over again.
“I will forever be grateful for his influence in my life, and on the city I now call home,” she continued. “He has been an integral part of making me feel welcome here, and I will miss him every day.”
Senior Ministers of Social Media and Creative Marketing for the Ray Nichols Memorial Working Group:
“If it were easy, everybody’d be doing it.” -Ray Nichols