A few hundred people gathered here Thursday to honor Edward Ray, a quiet and humble bus driver who rose to the occasion nearly 40 years ago to help free 26 kidnapped students.
Dozens of his family members, local officials and one of the children he saved met in what is now called Edward Ray Park to remember the man on what would have been his 94th birthday.
He died in 2012, remembered as a hero in the national news.
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Jodi Heffington of Chowchilla was 10 when she was abducted along with the others on Ray’s bus. She remembered him fondly during the ceremony. “We all loved Edward,” the 49-year-old said. “We call ourselves ‘Edward’s 26.’ ”
During the 1976 incident, Ray helped free 26 students kidnapped by Frederick Woods and brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld. The trio buried their victims alive in a rock quarry in Livermore.
Heffington said even amid the chaos of being buried alive, Ray stayed on the clock, reprimanding her for saying some cuss words. “I felt he’s going to tell my mom and dad when I get home and I’m going to be in really bad trouble,” she said. “So, in a way, he gave me a lot of hope.”
During the ceremony, city staff unveiled an 8-foot-wide sign for the park, which is the largest and most used park in town. It’s roughly 27 acres and has softball, baseball and soccer fields, a skate park and a picnic area.
Ray’s granddaughter Robyn Gomes, 39, said he would have been embarrassed to get so much attention for doing what he considered to be part of his job, making sure the students made it home safe. “He was so very thankful that all of those children made it home safe on that hot summer day, because of his love for the children,” she said. “They were always his first priority.”
In 1976, the kidnappers drove the victims around for nearly a dozen hours before stopping at a 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 children pushed open a metal lid covered with about 200 pounds of industrial batteries, cleared away some debris and freed the rest of the children after 16 hours underground.
Chowchilla Mayor John Chavez read a proclamation during the park dedication, which included making every Feb. 26 Edward Ray Day in Chowchilla. “We hope that when Feb. 26 comes around each year, you stop for a moment and remember the strength and heroism that was Edward Ray,” he said, speaking to the crowd.
City officials have said plans are afoot to raise the necessary money to pay for a more decorative sign, a flagpole and possibly 26 large stones, one for each child he saved.
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, and he and his wife, Odessa, bought a ranch in Dairyland, where they grew corn, alfalfa and raised dairy cows. Odessa Ray, 93, was at the dedication. “I’m overwhelmed,” she said as a crowd formed around the new sign. “All this? I’m overwhelmed.”
Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or email@example.com.
On July 15, 1976, 26 schoolchildren and their bus driver, Edward Ray, were kidnapped on their way back from a swimming outing on the next-to-last day of summer school.
▪ Seven boys and 19 girls were on the bus when abducted around 4 p.m.
▪ They were driven around for about 11 hours.
▪ The victims were placed in a moving van inside a Livermore rock quarry.
▪ After 16 hours in the 8-by-16 van, they dug their way out.
▪ They flagged down a watchman in a remote area near the Shadow Cliffs East Bay Regional Park in Pleasanton.
▪ A police escort brought the children back to Chowchilla before dawn on July 17.
▪ Investigators determined the moving van had been buried since November 1975.
▪ Each of the three suspects was arrested or surrendered between July 23 and 29.
▪ On Nov. 5, a judge ordered the case to be moved from Madera County.
▪ The suspects pleaded guilty on July 25, 1977, in an Alameda County court.
▪ A Superior Court judge found the trio guilty of three counts of kidnapping with bodily harm on Dec. 15, 1977.
▪ The men were sentenced to life in prison, but Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012.
▪ James Schoenfeld remains at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo.
▪ Frederick Woods is serving his sentence at the Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad.
AT A GLANCE
1921: Born Feb. 26 in Le Grand.
1940: Graduated from Chowchilla High.
1942: Married wife, Odessa, and purchased a ranch in Dairyland.
1953: Worked for Alview-Dairyland Union School District as a bus driver until 1988.
1976: Abducted around 4 p.m. July 15 with 26 children on his bus.
1992: Paid the school district $500 for the bus, which he later sold to Bright’s Pioneer Museum in Le Grand.
2012: Died at the age of 91 on May 17.