After spending the last two weeks in Winthrop Hospital with my wife, I understand that I may not be a doctor, but I can now understand words I never heard in my life.
While there, my mind frequently drifted toward a Shelter Islander who was as sick as anyone could be. A man who had a tragic accident, never complains or asks for help and has successfully and totally reinvented himself.
His name is Ray Evangelista. You know him. You’ve seen him driving his large blue van around the Island, playing golf, shooting pool or attending almost all the functions on the Island. What many don’t understand is he is completely paralyzed from his chest down. You might ask: Why should Ray be the subject of a sports column?
If you think about it for a minute, it’s simple; consider Ray’s strength and athleticism. He weighs about 240 pounds and moves around all day, every day, by his arms alone. Along with his hobbies of playing golf, cooking, playing poker and shooting pool, he moves around the house, drives his van 100 miles to work and 100 miles home almost every day with just these two massive arms.
I’ve known Ray and his family since they first arrived on the Island in 1964. As a young man, he worked for me picking up range balls and then cleaning clubs and carts, and I always recall how he made the job both competition and entertainment. Few kids loved the sport more than this city boy and it didn’t take long before he became an exceptional golfer.
He was born on Flag Day 61 years ago in Queens. was raised there. He’s a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in civil engineering.
As a young man, along with being captain of his high school golf team, he also played football, basketball and softball. Golf was always his number one love with basketball running a close second. To this day, winning the Junior Golf Championship at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club in 1970 and being a medalist in 1984 in the Club’s Championship still stand out among his greatest thrills.
His childhood idol was Willis Reed, a Hall of Famer who spent his entire career playing with the New York Knicks and was voted one of the 50 greatest players in history in 1997. Ray felt that Willis was the epitome of both power and grace, and he was impressed that he ran a basketball camp for kids.
When Ray was a little older, he played some competitive basketball at Manhattan’s Downtown Athletic Club. This was at a time he and his friend Bruce Orr felt they could take any two men on Shelter Island in a two-on-two game. I personally took the challenge, setting up a match with the two best players I knew from the Island at that time, Jay Card and Chris Tracy. I never saw four players play harder to win a match. At the end, Card and Tracy emerged victorious. It was by a slight margin but our guys got a little more respect.
Then — the misfortune. In January 1993, on his way back to Shelter Island from Sag Harbor, Ray’s car hit black ice, slid off the road and into a tree. That catastrophe changed his life forever, leaving him permanently paralyzed from the chest down.
I’ve remained a friend of Ray’s these last 21 years and am always amazed at how he has handled his life. I watch what he is going through on a daily basis and yet I never hear him complain or ask for help. Many times he will say to me, “Bob, so many people have it worse than me. I’m lucky.”
I admire his attitude but I do not agree that many people have it worse than he or that he is lucky.
Basketball and many other sports are no longer a part of his life but somehow golf still remains. He plays using a special single-seat golf cart that turns to the side. Then, using junior golf clubs and just his right arm, he hits the ball. Of course he cannot go into the sand bunkers with his cart but he does manage to drive on and off the green quickly in order to putt. With this one-handed shot and sitting in a golf cart, he plays golf to a 29 handicap. If you don’t think that is athletic, try it.
But that is not what Ray Evangelista is known for these days. He has become a master chef; in his home, he’s designed a kitchen with everything low enough for him to cook. He has the only house I know that has three large dining room tables. Why? Because one of his biggest thrills today is sharing his home and food with his friends.
When you finish your first class meal, loosen up the vocal cords because everybody is invited to sing karaoke and dance. Many Islanders, including my family, have had the pleasure of enjoying good food, good conversation and plenty of laughter at an evening with the Evangelistas.
Many people would have given up 21 years ago, but this remarkable guy decided to totally reinvent his life. About 18 years ago he married his aide, Prima. Or as he calls her, the “angel that God” sent him. The two of them helped raise his two children from a previous marriage, Sarah and Christopher, and their own child, Bianca. On more than one occasion I have heard him say that his life is better now than it has ever been.
Ray’s feelings for Shelter Island go deep, and he believes this is a great place to raise children. He was always taken with the intimacy of the school and the concern the teachers have for the students. In his opinion, the small school sports program gives every kid a chance to play, and that alone gives the kids a great advantage.
From a seven-year old paperboy, through a major life change, to a 61-year-old president of a construction company, Ray Evangelista has much wisdom to offer us.
What Ray’s example has taught me is that no matter what your circumstance, don’t bemoan what you do not have. To Ray, life is a blessing. Always look on the good side. Make the best of what you do have and somehow, it will all work out.