In his last days, Frank Edward Ray was visited by many of the schoolchildren he helped save in the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping 35 years before.
Ray died Thursday morning. He was 91.
In the infamous 1976 incident, he helped free 26 students kidnapped by brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, and Frederick Woods. The trio buried their victims alive in a rock quarry in Livermore.
"I believe he will be remembered as a hero, someone who was concerned about the children of our community and the children of the buses that he drove," said Jacki Flanagan, Ray's friend and manager of the Chowchilla Chamber of Commerce. "I think he'll be remembered for a long, long time."
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The kidnappers drove the victims around for about 11 hours before stopping at the Livermore quarry, where Ray and the 26 children were forced into a buried moving van.
The trio planned to demand a $5 million ransom, but Ray and several of the older children were able to stack mattresses high enough to climb out of an opening at the top of the buried van.
Ray and the kids pushed open a metal lid, which was covered with two 100-pound industrial batteries, cleared away some debris, and freed the others after 16 hours underground.
He is fondly remembered by family and others for his positive involvement in the community and his selfless nature.
"He was always worried about somebody else," said his granddaughter Robyn Gomes. "I think that's why he lasted so long, because he knew we needed him. He was our rock."
Ray was born in Le Grand on Feb. 26, 1921. He moved to Chowchilla with his family and graduated from Chowchilla High School in 1940.
In 1942, he married his wife, Odessa, and bought a ranch in Dairyland, where they grew corn, alfalfa and raised dairy cows.
June 30 would have been Ray and Odessa's 70th wedding anniversary, said Gomes. "They loved each other whole-heartedly. My grandpa adored her. They were always together."
Ray worked for Alview-Dairyland Union School District as a bus driver starting in the early 1950s and retired in 1988.
David Rogers, Madera County supervisor for District 2, said Ray was a pillar of the community.
"Ed Ray, he was Chowchilla," Rogers said. "Naturally he was the bus driver who was responsible for saving those kids' lives. But he won't be just remembered for that. He was a pillar of the Chowchilla community."
Ray is survived by his wife, Odessa; sister, Esther Danieli; two sons, Glen and Danny, and their children.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209)385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.