Sunday, March 25, 2007

Rest in peace, Mr. Nik.


Ray Nikolai passed away last Wednesday. He was my friend Dawn’s dad.

I hoped Ray would make it out here to Minnesota this summer. Dawn and I talked about bringing her family out here for a vacation. He’d have loved the St. Paul Saints, because Midway Park combines two of his great passions, baseball and trains. The ballpark is situated between a rail yard and a busy set of tracks, so the trains are as much a part of the game as the 7th inning stretch. Ray briefly played pro ball, but I think he was just as happy playing with his grandkids as he was with big leaguers. After his pro career was ended by injury, he got a job with General Motors in their photographic division, and stayed there until he retired. He shot car ads in the back when they conjured images of power and style and made the Motor City hum. Dawn has a great picture of him, leaning on a coupe, grinning goofily at one of those late 50’s models with eyeliner out to her ears. I don’t know if it ever was used in print, but it should have been: the look on his face could have launched a thousand Chevys.

After he retired, he shot freelance ad photography (many sessions with me), shot weddings (including mine), taught himself desktop publishing (with a lot of help from Dawn), and worked in a print shop to stay busy, as if he wasn’t already.

Ray was one of those people who could talk to anybody, and did. He was a great storyteller and was always vernacular. He treated everyone equally: as a buddy. He knew Neil Young, but I don’t think he knew Neil was a rock star until one of his kids told him. To Ray, Neil was just another model train enthusiast, one of the guys he’d look forward to seeing at train shows. Ray was the president of his local model train club, and his basement was full of engines, cars and track layouts. Dawn’s mom good-naturedly tolerated his passion and gave up the basement. He loved to talk to people about trains, and I'm sure that he started off hundreds of people in the hobby, just by sharing great stories. There’s a model train museum here, and I was sure that would be his first stop if he were to come to Minneapolis. He would have made some friends there.

More than anything else, though, Ray was a man of genuine enthusiasm: for his family, for his church, for his job, and for his hobbies. I was stunned to hear he passed: he had so much energy and passion for what made up his life, no matter how mundane. It seemed to me he'd never stop.

He leaves behind a wife, children and grandchildren (including Dawn's two boys, above), who grieve the loss. I do too.