Ray Mize passed away March 13, 2017 in Nacogdoches. He was 86 and lived a full life. Ray was a great friend of the SFA Gardens, the University and this community. I’ve known Ray since the 1980s. His wife Gayla was the light in his eye. She volunteered from the very beginning of the Arboretum and in all kinds of city beautification projects. Ray was always in tow. He was a cattleman and I ran a few head in Shelby County. He liked agriculture. I did too. So, we kind of connected. It was Gayla that brought him to loving flowers. Behind the scene, both Gayla and Ray had much to do with the creation of the Ruby Mize Azalea Garden. Of course, everyone knew Ray adored Gayla and for good reason; she was a very beautiful, sweet and special lady in our town.
The road to the Gayla Mize Garden was a long one. There’s about 68 acres of land along University Drive that was owned by SFA. In 2008, Dr. Mike Legg in Forestry and Michael Maningas in Recreation submitted a Texas Parks and Wildlife proposal for a trails project. The proposal needed collaborators and some matching funds. That was us; SFA Gardens stepped up and as part of the deal, I wanted to name the property SFA Recreational Trails and Gardens (SFARTG). They agreed and the University agreed. Over a mile of trails came together and the SFARTG was dedicated in March 2010. Well, time passed and the trails were there but no garden. We did plant a line of the purple spider azaleas Koromo shikibu that are the front of the Ruby Mize Azalea Garden, but that was about it. There’s a reality at universities: no money, no garden.
When Gayla Mize passed away in 2009, Ray had lost his soulmate. He would drive down University and see that sign shouting out “SFA Recreational Trails and Gardens.” He would think, “where’s the $%&! Garden?” The first I knew of Ray’s interest in building a legacy garden was in 2010. I received a call from the secretary in the Agriculture building. According to her, a large man with a patch on one eye had walked in to the main office. He was carrying an axe and a crosscut saw wanting to know “where is that $#%!& Dave Creech? He needs to get to work.” To be honest, Ray kind of scared the ladies there in the front office. I had moved my office to the Tucker House at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center and we soon got connected. Ray was interested in that that frontage along University as a legacy for Gayla Mize. We visited about what might be done. A relationship was born.
As most of you know, things move slowly at a University. I often say our speed is deceiving; we’re actually slower than we look. Ray visited with the administration and the University gave their blessing on the idea of a legacy garden. Well, Ray would give us a little funding and we’d go into action. Ray told me, “I like to try on a pair of shoes before I buy them.” We kept at it. Being stubborn gardeners, we kept chipping away. It did take a serious effort to get the understory of privet, tallow, green briar vine, and honeysuckle out of there. We took out a few trees which always add to the excitement of garden building. We needed a clean forest floor to see what we had. We needed a garden design and Barb Stump sprang into action with that. After all she was the designer and creator of the Ruby Mize Azalea Garden. Who better than her! We had to deal with some drainage issues. There were plants to acquire and grow. There was building a trail system inside the eight acres of garden. In 2011, when Ray was convinced he was on the right track and our crew was up to the task, he stepped up and provided the legacy endowment.
Well before we made a serious run at planting azaleas, camellias and Japanese maples, I gave Ray a call and said get to the garden and I wanted him to plant the very first tree. Burrows Creek defines the northern edge of the Gayla Mize Garden and we planted a nice baldcypress. It remains to this day and I suspect it’ll be there for a few thousand years.
The dedication of the Gayla Mize Garden took place April 16, 2012.
Ray was no average donor. He provided us with over-the-shoulder attention all the time. Ray was old school. Skip the paperwork, roll up your sleeves, and make it happen now. He’d catch me in my office or the garden and never fail to nudge me to move faster. We needed more flowers. What the heck was I doing with my time? I said trails take time. Before I knew it, he had enlisted his grandson Ryan Cupit to help us get the trail base in. Why wasn’t the gazebo finished? We’re working on it. Did I understand what it meant to make hay when the sun shines? Yes, I’m trying. Did he have to bring some of his folks in there to make something happen? I’d explain that it takes one hundred years to build a garden, two hundred if you don’t rush it. He wasn’t convinced. Ray was a man on a mission. Our conversation usually ended with him saying, “Am I going to have to go talk to Baker?” That, of course, is the SFASU President, Baker Patillo. I hoped he was bluffing but it did provide additional incentive. Ray liked to tease and he always let me know at the end of our visits how pleased the way the garden was growing.
Ray truly loved the garden. It was an important connection to Gayla and to everyone in our community. The Agriculture in him meant he understood what it’s like to grow things on a big scale and what drought, floods and freezes can do. He had empathy. Ray noticed when the parking lot was full and that always made him feel good. He liked the place being used. Ray was more than a supporter; he was an aggressive participant for a greener Nacogdoches. Leaving a legacy for Gayla, for his two children Jimmy and Lysa, for all his grandchildren, and for all the citizens of Nacogdoches, well, this was Ray’s way of paying it forward. When I walk the garden now, I feel there’s someone above pointing out all the stuff we need to be doing. I suspect it’s Ray and I’ll bet anything Gayla has him planting something in God’s back forty.