UNHS bids farewell to Ray and Oleta Whaley after 24 years of service
When Ray and Oleta Whaley moved their family to Montezuma Creek in 1993 they had no idea of the tremendous impact they would have on the community or the community would have on them.
Last week administrators and staff at Utah Navajo Health System, Inc. turned out to bid this inspiring couple farewell, after nearly twenty-four years of outstanding service and dedication to the Montezuma Creek Community, San Juan County and UNHS. The Whaleys arrived in Montezuma Creek on July 3, 1993 and started working as missionaries for the Church of Christ. No sooner had they arrived than they began teaching Vacation Bible School, something they did for twenty years. Along with preaching, Bible School, substitute teaching math and science classes in local schools and teaching free pre-school for several years, Ray and Oleta served as volunteer EMT’s for San Juan County. Ray began as an ambulance driver for San Juan County and certified as an EMT in 1997. Oleta said she ran as an EMT for three years until failing eyesight sidelined her from that endeavor.
Ray, however, went on to become San Juan County’s first Paramedic in 2006, one of the certificates the Texas native cherishes most, along with his Preaching certificate.
“Oleta is from Oklahoma and she went to Oklahoma State University and got her Bachelors Degree. The two certificates I’m most proud of are my Paramedic certificate, and I worked myself to death on that one, and my Preaching certificate, same thing, I worked for them,” Ray said.
Ray was a volunteer EMT/Paramedic for San Juan County EMS from 1997 until 2013, when UNHS began its own EMS service, based in Montezuma Creek. Ray recalled studying for his EMT certification under the late Sandra Asbury and working with two of the EMT’s who have worked longer than him, Etta Shumway, who started in 1993, and Debbie Benally, who has been an EMT for twenty-five years for San Juan County and UNHS. Ray became the first Training Officer for UNHS EMS and worked for nearly four years, helping build the number of UNHS EMT’s to twenty-four. He also worked with Otis Oldman, the second Paramedic for UNHS, who will now become the UNHS EMS Training Officer in Ray’s steed.
UNHS EMS Director, Dustin Coggeshell presented Ray with a Pendleton Blanket during the special luncheon last Wednesday at the UNHS Administration Building and spoke highly of Ray, as one of the original UNHS EMS team.
“We want to present this Pendleton (Blanket) as a thank you for twenty years of EMS service: It says, ‘To Ray Whaley 1997 to 2017. That’s combined services from San Juan County EMS, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southwest Memorial Hospital and also now Utah Navajo Health System. I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for us, the community and the organization,” Coggeshell told Whaley. “24-7 day or night, snow, rain, whatever’s going on out there. You know, its organized chaos on EMS calls on everything. We’re going to miss having him around us. He’s taught us a lot. He’s been with EMS for so long, even the first day I started. He’s been like a father figure to me and he’s taught me so much. He taught everybody so much and we’re going to continue practicing that out in the field and provide that service for the community. We thank him and we appreciate everything he’s done for us.
“And I also want to thank Oleta,” Coggeshell continued. “It takes a lot for a family to support somebody in EMS or any type of public safety. A lot of time away from home, 24-7. You miss a lot of holidays, birthday dinners, you miss so many different things that you have to step away from. With Oleta’s support, to have Ray to do all that, we appreciate it Oleta.”
UNHS CEO Michael Jensen was also on hand to present Ray with his blanket and offer a few words.
“He and Oleta have been such great servants of the community, whether it be EMS, nursing, school and just being kind to the community,” Jensen added. “I think many of you have interacted with them outside UNHS or your children may have. We want to thank the folks that put on the food, cooking the delicious Navajo Tacos and the cobbler. Thank you. It’s a small way to appreciate this couple and the things they’ve done for the community.”
“We have lived here longer than we have lived anywhere in our lives. We’ve known more people here than any place else in our lives. And I think I’ve worked for ya’ll about as long as I’ve worked for anybody, in my entire life,” Whaley told the gathering in his Texas drawl. “It’s been a hard decision to make. But I got old, gray-haired, pot-bellied, and I think that’s the way the good Lord intended. So I think its time to turn it over to somebody else. I’ve got some students here I think a lot of. I guess you guys don’t know it but every time you failed a test it’s just like I failed it myself. I’m turning it over to Otis now. He doesn’t have the burden that I’ve got. He’s not nice. He’s mean. And he enjoys it,” Whaley joked. “I’m hoping good things for Montezuma Creek. You wouldn’t believe it but the things that bother me shouldn’t bother me. The things that don’t bother me should. It’s not the blood and the gore that got to me. I can live with that all day. That’s just gross stuff. It’s that I got emotionally involved with people I shouldn’t get emotionally involved with. Those things hurt. So sometimes when somebody passes its just like I lost one of my own. And then sometimes, now and then, once in a great while, we do something right. And we get to see the person still alive. Live long enough to spoil their grandkids, and I guess that’s what its all about. So, thank you guys. Thank you for everything you’ve done. Thank you for all the ambulance calls and the trauma, and the sick folks and everything we got involved in. You talk about being a father figure, you’re always gonna be my young’ns and I realize some you are young enough to be my grandkids. I guess every time I see a little kid now, I keep waiting for them to say, ‘hey, there’s poppa ray’.”
When asked about the memories of twenty years as an EMT/Paramedic, Whaley explained, “I don’t think I’d change anything. Some bad things would happen and I had to be here when they happened. For a while I was the only paramedic in San Juan County. I was the best looking paramedic they had and the youngest one and the smartest one too. But then Otis joined us and now there are two others. We’ll be in good hands. Talking about things I remember? We worked a couple of electrocutions, some cardiac arrests, we’ve worked trauma and flew people out and every now and then we’d do something right. UNHS EMS? We’ve come a long ways in less than four years. We’ve made a lot of progress.”
Ray stressed again the constant concern he had for his EMT students as UNHS EMS Training Officer. “I’m hoping I can take the stress off. I got too involved with my students. It’s like when they flunked, I flunked,” he said. “Funny I could suffer through the trauma with a patient and I’m fine the next day, but when my students didn’t pass it bothers me. It shouldn’t do that. I should be more hard hearted – I’m too kind.”
When asked what things he will miss about Montezuma Creek, he replied, “What will I miss most? I’ll miss the desert early in the morning when we’re out on our (tandem) bicycle. That will be hard to give up. West Texas desert is not the same. I’m still struggling with the fact I’ll be around white folks. Believe it or not it’s different. I’m gonna have to get used to that again. When I see little kids and they’re all brown, those are my grand kids, every one of them. They all call me Poppa Ray. I have very fond feelings for the Navajo people. We’ve been through so many things with these guys. It’s hard and I’m gonna miss them.”
So, after nearly twenty-four years of serving and loving the people of Montezuma Creek and UNHS, raising five children, who all married Navajo spouses, Ray and Oleta are off to Ray’s hometown of Adrian, Texas. It just happens to be the first town you come to when you cross from New Mexico into west Texas on I-40 (along the old Route 66), population 129, according to Ray. They have a home one-and-a-half blocks from where Ray grew up and they will eat out, when they do, at the Midpoint Cafe, 1139 miles from Chicago to the east and 1139 miles from Los Angeles to the west. And not so far from Montezuma Creek they can’t visit now and then, or welcome visitors from Montezuma Creek to their home.
“Just call ahead,” Poppa Ray told his friends, “And we’ll have supper on the table for ya.”