Feature Article from The Drummer of Wright County


Drummer Feature July 24, 2005

The Legacy of Jason Ray

By Karen Laven

From collecting and selling bobble heads to concocting annual disc golf sporting tournaments, the late Jason Patrick Ray had a way of getting right to the heart of life.

Tragically, Ray died on April 17, 2005 in Sandstone, Minnesota, while kayaking on the Snake River. There was no drugs, alcohol or foul play involved for this former Eagle Scout from Annandale. Instead it was a deceivingly fierce undercurrent that took this 30-year-old man's life far too soon.

This summer Sumac Hills Disc Golf Course was dedicated to the memory of Jason Ray, who held an annual disc golfing event there called Discstock. His mother, Linda Ray, and fiance, Colleen Commerford stand next to the dedication site. (Submitted photo)

Whether it was with his business dealings or family or friends, his easy-going demeanor and insatiable entrepreneurial spirit often blew open doors to exciting new ventures for the dealer in sports memorabilia.  

Business-wise, Ray was always on the lookout for the next "it" item and he often found "it," too.

If there were a bobble head give-a-way -- whether in Tennessee or Chicago, Ray would likely go there, often driving a van filled with children or other adults, where he would add to his sports memorabilia stash.

"He knew every give-away in the U.S.," said Ray's fiance, Colleen Commerford.

"When he had something he wanted you to do, he didn't take no for an answer," chuckled Scott Keeler, Ray's most recent business partner.

Ray, the son of Steve and Linda Ray, graduated from Monticello High School and made a full-time business of collecting and selling sports cards and other sports memorabilia; including an extensive collection of bobble heads.

He would then sell the items on his website, as well as on E-bay and at flea markets and sports shows such as Twins Fest. He was known around the United States - actually, the world -- as the "King of the Bobble Heads." He had close to 4,500 of them, total.

"Because he did not have adequate room in his apartment, Jason never got the chance to see his collection properly displayed," said Steve, "and most people had no idea how many he had."

This summer Ray's parents made it their mission to erect a temporary tribute to their son. It was one of the most unique tributes imaginable: a display of the 600 different bobble heads he'd owned.

This amazing collection of Ray's has already been documented by the Discovery Channel and will be showcased on "Pop Nation," sometime this fall.

Colleen Commerford, Jason Ray's fiance, holds Ray's favorite bobble head, and his parents, Steve and Linda Ray are seen here with their favorite bobble head dolls at "Bobblewood," a temporary monument of 600 different bobble heads of Jason's. Linda is clutching the Jesse James doll -- her son's first foray into bobble head manufacturing.

Ray's brother Eric, who is a rocket scientist living in Maryland, was interviewed for the show, and Discovery has indicated that they will also help the family sell the bobble head collection on E-bay.

This collector/trader/seller was a born businessman -- running a lemonade stand at the age of five, and as the Navy family moved from one state to another over the years, Ray's business focus remained grounded.

"He was wise beyond his years," shared Linda

Ray did attend college for a brief time but an insatiable gusto to hit the real business trail was too strong and he left school to open his own video rental store (with Gene Kiphuth) in Annandale.

Finding it difficult to keep up with the mass chain's prices and products, the store closed its doors

However, as fate would have it, that's just about when Ray took note of Northfield's annual Jesse James Days and came up with the innovative idea of manufacturing Jesse James bobble head dolls. He approached the city with his proposal and the rest is bobble head history.

The Annandale resident also had a knack for overcoming adversity. The Jesse James dolls, for example, were manufactured in China and some of the wording came back incorrectly spelled on the 1,000-doll order.

Ray quickly gathered up Dremel sanders and paint -- and his family and friends -- and they frantically worked for several days to alter the wording, just in time.

One of Jason Ray's most prestigious accomplishments was procuring the contracts and rights to manufacture his own line of bobble head dolls, including all of the four locally famous Minnesota Viking Purple People Eaters. Ray is pictured here with one of the greatest: Jim Marshall. The signed Jim Marshall Bobble Head Doll (and other Viking and sports figure dolls) are a valuable collectible.

The entrepreneur's proudest accomplishment (alongside Keeler) was likely his knack for obtaining contracts for, and manufacturing bobble head dolls of the Minnesota Viking Purple People Eaters: Jim Marshall, Gary Larson, Alan Page and Carl Eller - as well as other famous sports icons.

Ray worked closely with the artists to make sure each doll was crafted just so; he was a stickler for detail.

He had a knack for making friends with many of his contacts -- including becoming good buddies with former Vikings’ running back, Chuck Foreman.

Their company was featured in several national periodicals including the Wall Street Journal, as well as the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Ray often divided his time between work and sports. His most recent forays were kayaking and disc golfing. He founded the annual disc golf tournament at Sumac Hills Course in Barrett, Minnesota.

When the owner of the company where Ray purchased his disc golfing supplies learned of his death he crafted complimentary commemorative disc markers with his image for a memorial dedication, which was held at Sumac Hills.

 "During his life he was able to help so many people, and now we are being helped by so many," shared Linda.

Ray was not one to toot his own horn, either. Whether he'd just met another famous athlete or helped out a cousin or friend he usually didn't relay that information to his parents.

They discovered how much they didn't know when they went through his belongings. There were signed photographs and notes from local and national celebrities, not to mention uncovering cases upon cases of bobble head dolls that he had stashed in numerous locations.

"We realized we didn't know the half of it," said Steve.

Ray's memorial service was a testament to his own effervescent uniqueness: it included live music from three members of a band whose music he loved, Monroe Crossing, and touching and humorous eulogies from numerous family members and friends.

There were bottles of Ray's favorite root beer (that had to be purchased and brought back from the Dakotas), and lots of key lime pie -- made by Commerford and her family.

Following the service, attendees were urged to take home a Jesse James bobble head doll, as well.

On June 29th (what would have been Jason Ray's 31st birthday) several dozen of his family and friends held a kite flying celebration in his honor. The day started off stormy, but when the time came to converge, the skies cleared and the weather was beautiful. Here Jason's brother, Eric's kite takes flight. (Submitted photo.)

On June 29, there was another convergence of family and friends on what would have been his 31st birthday. The group flew kites in his memory. Commerford had indicated in her eulogy that Jason had always wanted her to fly a kite with him and she never had, so she urged others to do so that special day in honor of Ray.

His passing obviously affected so many lives. Ray and Commerford were in the initial planning stages of their wedding. Of course there would have been bobble head replicas of the couple upon their wedding cake, shared Commerford with a grin.

Keeler is also finding it tough to move forward with the business.

"We did everything together," said Keeler. We went to Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee - we were always together. The hardest part is when I go to baseball games and people come up to me asking: 'Where's Jason?'"

"He always knew the most amazing things," added Keeler. "He knew every little niche. He was my motivation. It's not fun to do anymore. It's just not the same now."

"He had too many ideas and too little time," Commerford commented.

Steve and Linda are aided during this difficult time by the support of loved ones and friends, as well as via anonymous people who've reached out to them. They also attend a support group. However, it is their deep faith that has carried them forth.

The family opted to donate Ray's eyes following his death. A gift that is so beautifully suited from a man "who really loved helping people," said Linda, "no matter what they needed."

A memorial fund has been set up in Jason Ray's name.