For nearly four decades at American Airlines, Mary Rose Noel Ray encountered scores of religious leaders, movie stars, pop sensations, royalty and even five U.S. presidents as one of the first female public relations professionals.
But the Libertyville resident, who died Dec. 23 at age 95, wasn't one to boast of the many big names she dealt with during a long career.
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"It was just part of her job and she throughly enjoyed it," said her niece, Peg Ray. "She thrived on being a career woman."
Those aspirations began early for the outgoing and energetic woman who became a pioneer in her field and a world traveler.
Ray grew up in Chicago and graduated from North Park Junior College in 1936, where she was among the first female cheerleaders. She went on to earn a journalism degree from Northwestern University and worked for the Boy Scouts of America after graduation.
In 1942, she was hired as a public relations assistant at American Airlines, working at Midway Airport before transferring to the corporate office downtown and then to O'Hare.
At the time, American was the only airline with a press room, and Ray often was the lone female in the group photo of media surrounding a famous visitor.
Peg Ray said her aunt was the antithesis of the stay-at-home spouse.
"She was a career woman before there were career woman," Peg Ray said. "She loved her work."
Everyone went through Ray's office, and the list of VIPs who crossed her path for photo opportunities or interviews represent snapshots of history.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Indira Gandhi, King Peter of Yugoslavia, Prince Philip, Carol Channing, Jimmy Stewart, the Dave Clark Five and U.S. Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson and Carter were among those Ray met in the course of her duties.
Peg Ray said her aunt often forwarded publicity photos of performers.
"'I won't shake hands but I'll smile,' is what (Frank) Sinatra said," according to Peg Ray. She wasn't sure who may have had the biggest impact.
"Her faith was huge. It wouldn't surprise me that meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury was probably among her favorites."
One favorite story didn't involve a celebrity but was from her aunt's childhood. The family found a baby alligator in Diamond Lake when it was operated as the Ray Brothers resort. They named the reptile Alexis.
"They took it home and raised it for 18 years," she said.
Her career had its serious moments. In July 1979, shortly before she retired as press chief, she was named Press Woman of the Year for her handling of the crash of American Flight 191, in which 271 passengers and crew died. Later that year, she handled the media for the hijacking of an American Airlines plane by two Serbian terrorists.
Ray retired from American in September 1979 and continued working as travel writer. According to her niece, Ray was featured in Glamour magazine as one of six leaders in the emerging field of public relations.
She married Russell V. Ray, a partner in a Libertyville law firm, in 1952. He died in 1991.
Services are at 10 a.m. Friday, Jan. 4, at St. Joseph Church, 121 E. Maple Ave., Libertyville. For information, call Burnett-Dane Funeral Home at (847) 362-3009 or visit burnettdane.com.