He has been called a man of unassuming genius, a wry professor—always in command of the material. Prof. Bill Ray made French literature come to life, dazzling students with surprising, multilayered interpretations. He held the John B. and Elizabeth M. Yeon Chair in French and the Humanities, and waxed eloquently on culture, the novel and literary theory.
“Is it true there was a time when teenagers read current issues of academic journals as if there were the latest fanzines?” asks John Culbert ’85. “That they regarded the contributors to Diacritics and Yale French Studies with feelings usually reserved for rock stars? If I remember these things right, then Bill Ray was a celebrity, a man whose books and essays rubbed shoulders with works of the cosmopolitan, intellectual elite. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man were distant idols, but Bill Ray walked among us, wearing light blue jeans with an oversize western belt buckle and a tan jacket whose physical composition—leather or Naugahyde?—remains a matter of sustained debate.”
Nothing about Ray’s youth put him on a track to teach French or literary theory. Born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, he was raised in the affluent village of Winnetka, Illinois, north of Chicago in the era of Sputnik and the Red Menace. Ray’s parents hoped he would become a scientist, which meant that he had to learn German. It became his favorite course and while attending Wabash College, he decided to pick up French as well. By what he calls, “the luck of the draw,” he happened to go on to graduate school in French at the University of Chicago.
An inveterate outdoorsman, Ray built a log cabin in the mountains of Colorado with the help of a friend and five hand tools when he was 25 years old. He idolized ethnologist Niko Tinbergen and wanted to work in nature, possibly for the Fish and Wildlife Service. But fate had other plans, and they came in the form of the Vietnam War.
“I had no particular plans to pursue a career in language instruction or teaching,” Ray says. “But to stay out of the draft I accepted a Woodrow Wilson Scholarship and went into graduate school at the University of Chicago. After I’d been there for a year they abolished all deferments for graduate school. Those of us who had already snuck in under the wire could either stay until we passed 26 years of age and get our Ph.D., or we could leave graduate school and get drafted within a month. Like a lot of other people of that generation, my lifelong trajectory was basically determined by the geo-political events of the time.”
After earning his PhD in 1971, Ray taught at the State University of New York–Plattsburgh before joining the Reed faculty in 1972 where he taught French, humanities, literary theory and French fiction.
“Anyone who took a class with Bill would know the drill on the first day,” remembers Joanna Schildt ’98. “You enter the conference, sit around the table, Bill walks in, sits down, shuffles his papers, and then... says nothing. Nothing at all. For minutes at a time. Students shift uneasily in their seats. Eyes roll queasily from side to side. Who will break the silence? Who will speak? Feet cross and uncross under the table. Everyone stares at their books and their papers, taps their pens. And that’s when it clicks: this conference wasn’t about Bill. If this conference was going anywhere, we had better do something. Bill gazed at us expectantly, smiling benevolently. And then began the some of the best discussions I’ve ever had about literature in any language, hands down.”
Ray believed in contributing to make the community the kind of place he’d want to spend the rest of his life, and he has been devoted to Reed.
“I had the great fortune,” he says, “to spend my entire life with people more intelligent than I, but who never quite figured out that they were. It was a delight being at Reed. Compared to other institutions that I’ve been, Reed is a place apart.”
Ray is a past recipient of Reed’s Vollum Senior Faculty Award, as well as several outside fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Humanities Center, and the Camargo Foundation.
Recently his interest has been in the paradox of culture.
“On the one hand,” he says, “culture is something you do nothing to acquire because you’re born into it and on the other hand it’s a self- conscious, cultivated endeavor that you undertake to try and perfect yourself.”
His last book, The Logic of Culture: Authority and Identity in the Modern Era (2002), took up this theme. In addition, he wrote Literary Meaning: An Introduction (1984) and Story and History: Narrative Authority and Social Identity in the Eighteenth-Century French and English Novel (1991) and published articles in French Review, French Forum, Dioacritics, Chicago Literary Review and Studies in Romanticism.
Ray decided some time ago that it was time to retire. “You can’t teach forever,” he says, “not if you want to do all the other things you've been putting off.”
Ray plans on extensive traveling with his wife, the art historian Kathleen Nicholson, who shares his passion for bird watching and nature photograph.