Raymond Lester Norton was born in Minneapolis on June 1st, 1918 to George and Maud Norton. He was named “Raymond” by his older brother, Herbert, who wanted to be able to call “Hey, Ray!” to him.
Unfortunately, Herbert died when Ray was only 3 years old. Ray’s father worked on the Soo Line Railroad first as a fireman; then as an engineer.
Ray and his mother traveled all over on trains, and Ray saw the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago as a teenager. Ray would hitch rides in the cab of the locomotives his father was driving and sometimes his dad would let him run the engine.
Ray would have loved to become an engineer, but was not accepted by the railroad because he was legally blind in one eye, and if a cinder were to fly into his good eye, he would be blind.
So Ray turned his love of railroads to modeling and building an exceptional transportation library. He built locomotives and cars by scratch, bending the brass, punching the window openings out with dies and painstakingly painting them.
He was a stickler for accuracy in all the details. His specialty was “O” gauge two-rail modeling. He joined the Twin Cities Model Railroad Club in the 1930s where he worked with others who were passionate about railroads like he was.
He was drafted into the Army during WWII, but because of his vision, he served stateside, first as a dental technician, then as a driver in the motor pool. Soldiers used the trains to go between their homes and bases. Ray and an army buddy, Porcelli, had a few hours between trains in Kansas City, MO.
They walked to the downtown and spied Ileen and her girlfriend, Zelma, walking along the sidewalk and sharing a box of popcorn. Ray and Porcelli offered to take the girls out for a drink, but Missouri was “dry” on Sundays, so bars were closed. Ray then said the girls could take them out for coffee! Ileen and Zelma walked them to the depot. Ray asked for Ileen’s address and she refused to give it to him, but Zelma gave him her address, and the rest is history!
Ray wrote to Ileen, visited her every time he went through Kansas City and over a few years time, he persuaded her be engaged to marry him. On a hot day, July 5th, 1944, he argued with Ileen to tie the knot that very day, and by evening she agreed. They went to the home of a local pastor and were married. For 67 years they were true friends and loving partners in their marriage.
After WWII, Ray was discharged from the Army and drove trucks for a living, gravel trucks and long tanker trucks. He reactivated his membership in the model railroad club and went on rail fan trips. One trip to Milwaukee in 1951 changed his life. Ray and his friend Charlie were riding a light interurban train filled with rail fans when it was hit head-on by a heavy train, which barreled through the light train, killing Charlie and gravely injuring Ray.
Ray was in a coma for a week, with shattered legs, broken back and broken arm. Ileen flew to Milwaukee to be at Ray’s side, while their toddler, Ron, was cared for by Ileen’s parents. Ray woke up and began a rehabilitation that took years and was not able to drive truck again.
So Ray opened Ray’s Train Shop in downtown Minneapolis. He operated it for six years or so, until construction disrupted his customer traffic and he was not able to continue it financially.
Ray got a job at Honeywell as a “tool crib attendant” which he described as operating a captive hardware store, stocking supplies needed by tool makers. During a work slowdown, he was temporarily laid off from Honeywell, and drove Yellow Cab and worked at the Minneapolis Water Works. Honeywell called him back to work and he retired from Honeywell after more than 20 years.
Ray loved music and sang and played trombone and baritone. He played in bands in high school, the Army post bands, the Engineers Band and the Honeywell Band. He sang and played solos at church and sang in the church choir. His daughter, Pat, cherishes the memory of singing harmony with him as they drove home from the railroad club or stood next to each other at church. Pat and Ray also performed duets with Ray on the trombone and Pat on the cello.
Ray loved to travel. He piled his family into the station wagon every summer. Poor Ileen had to pack everything and make lunches “on the fly” in the back of the car while Ray continued to drive. The family often camped in the car. Pat lay across the front seat, Ron and Ileen were in the back and Ray was on a cot over the length of the inside of the car. Despite this economy style, the family saw much of the United States and Canada. Ray and Ileen later took a trip to the British Isles.
Ray loved his family! His wife, Ileen, was his “little queen.” He called “Hey Babe” to her, and called her “Big Gal” to distinguish her from daughter, Pat, who was his “Little Gal.” His son, Ron, was his “Boy Child.” He enjoyed being a grandfather, and even in old age, enjoyed his great-granddaughters. He would say that having great-granddaughters made him “great.”
His language was unique. He had a nickname for everything. His family was constantly translating for him to puzzled new acquaintances. Waitresses quickly learned that “extract of bovine” was milk.
He survived quadruple heart bypass surgery, several heart attacks, advanced colon cancer, hearing loss, tremor and eventually mild dementia, but woke up every morning cheerful and with a real zest for life. He loved going to Catholic Eldercare Day Program. Last Saturday he went down to the basement to his workbench to work on a model train when he fell. Mom called the paramedics who encouraged him to go to the hospital. Then his advanced heart failure was discovered and his family surrounded him, holding him, hugging him, singing to him and blessing him as he went on his journey toward Heaven. His pastor, Sarah, came to bless him, too.
On Sunday afternoon Ray said, “You understand now, I’m going to fool the hell out of you and continue living.” But an hour before Ray passed into God’s hands, Ray said, “Up and Out! Get me Up and Out. They’re waiting for me.” Ray was always a man who was on time, and when he was called to Heaven, he was in the driver’s seat, telling his spirit to get “Up and Out!” He died at 1:00 a.m. on Monday, February 27th, with his family right at hand.
Ray was a man who loved life, family, friends, church, railroads, music, animals, travel. He could be soft, he could be gruff and no-nonsense. He could blush! He was generous and big-hearted. He was determined. He was stubborn and stalwart. If he believed something, he believed it whole-heartedly. His personality was a force of nature. He was a real character and colorful. He taught us about love and responsibility. He was husband, father, son, grandfather, great-grandfather, uncle, brother-in-law, friend. He was Ray!