Ray Aaron Dolph

Remarks by Lawry Dolph, Nov. 30, 2011

I’ve been asked to speak about one of the founders of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor in 1916, a young businessman Ray Aaron Dolph. He was 31 about the time this photo was taken. Take a look at Ray’s haircut. Perfect. No surprise. Ray’s hair was cut by Bob Dascola’s grandfather. Three years later, Ray Dolph helped to organize the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce. 

The name “Dolph” is a contraction of “de Wolf” a Dutch name. The de Wolfs arrived in 1740 and followed the frontier as it moved west along the Great Lakes, becoming Dolphs en route.
Ray was born between two economic cataclysms, the Panic of 1873 and the Panic of 1893. The first was called “The Great Depression,” until the Great Depression. All three devastated Michigan. And there was one more. Ray’s story—and Ann Arbor’s—was shaped by the Panic of 1907.
Ray Dolph escaped the farm at 17 and apprenticed with a real estate developer who was feeding the building boom in Lakewood, Ohio, on the lake west of Cleveland. Then came the collapse in 1907, the Banker’s Panic. Ray Dolph came to Ann Arbor, age 23, and started over.
Ann Arbor…
Two years before, Michigan’s last tree was cut down and lumber boomtowns of Saginaw, Bay City, Muskegon and Flint went broke overnight. That same year Ann Arbor built Barton Dam and electrified the town. The pond behind the dam gave Ann Arbor its first abundant water suppy, made clean and safe to drink with chlorine.
By 1910, the University of Michigan had doubled its enrollment. In 1914 the town declared war on the fly and the manure on the streets that attracted it. Ann Arbor became the 'City with a Conscience' in its own words. The town had been German, English and Irish. Now immigrants from Greece, Italy, Russia, and Poland settled here. The once stalled population grew 25%. And from 1916 on, Rotarians, including Ray Dolph, worked together to build the town.
In terms of democracy, the years 1916 to 1919 were brutal. The World War overseas. Thousands dead from influenza. By 1917 people were at one another’s throats. The nation was panicked at home, this time by espionage and anarchism. The Great Red Scare. The nation was obsessively anti-immigrant. And in Ann Arbor, half the residents or their parents were foreign born.
It was a time when a minister, a university professor, or even a candidate for President of the United States, could be jailed for speaking out against US policy.
There would be a federal badge in Ann Arbor. Undercover. This person could roust the town. That would be bad for business. Ray Dolph took the badge and the firearms that went with it—a 1911 Colt and a .30-40 Krag, accurate to 1,000 yards.To my knowledge, there was not a single arrest for espionage, anarchism, or speaking out. And no one was shot.
The whole idea of Rotary was to put service above self. Ray was inclusive. He belonged to every service and social club: Rotary, Elks, the Chamber, the Masons and more. You didn’t arrest people. You talked to them. There was room for everyone in the community.
During the bad years, neighbors would ask if they could plant a garden on a vacant lot. Ray Dolph would have the lot plowed so the vegetables would easily push through the soft dirt.
As a night watchman for one of his businesses, Ray hired an intense kid with a family and no money. “Could I work on my idea,” the kid said. “I’ll make my rounds and it will keep me from falling asleep.” There were chemicals involved. “Sure,” Ray said. That kid was Gene Power and his idea became University Microfilms, and Gene became a Regent of the University.
I remember sitting outdoors with Ray when I was just 9. We were eating fried potatoes. I had consumed mine with relish. He smiled and dished his onto my plate.
But I also remember coming back to Ann Arbor from Vietnam sixteen years later and enrolling in graduate school. The 50-something secretary asked if I was any relation to Ray Dolph. My grandfather. She had been playing in her family front yard, age five, when kidnappers snatched her. Child kidnapping was a crime spree in the 1920s. Ray Dolph had run them down, she said, beat them up, and brought her home to her Dad. Ray had been light heavyweight boxing champion of Ohio. And in Ann Arbor, you took care of one another.
Ray was four years gone, and I was thirteen when Ray’s brother, age 72, gave me my first shooting lesson, a pump .22. He threw a can into a field. I nicked it. Just missed. Nicked it again. He refilled the ten-round magazine and the can flew, not coming back to earth until the he had emptied the magazine. He took off his glasses and wiped them. He couldn’t see that well anymore, he said. And anyway, he couldn’t shoot like Ray.
I will say that lesson was helpful to me in Vietnam. But Ray, who’s adult life bridged the collapse of wild lumber camps to helping create a world-class university, believed that if you could shoot, you’d never have to.
In the late 1920s, Ray Dolph started his own Lakewood in Ann Arbor. He bought the old Almendinger Farm west of town. The development would rival Barton Hills. At least, that was the plan. Ray had dug two wells, one 400 feet deep, the other 600 feet, and built a 70,000 gallon water tower for the safest drinking water in the state. Two hundred and forty lots were sold by 1929. By 1932, all but 40 lots were back in default, a victim of the Great Depression.
There was no cash in town, no currency, and so there was no business. Rotarian, Chamber member, Mason, Elk Ray Dolph created a bank check with multiple endorsements lines on the back. He organized the merchants to price in even amounts. The check became a credit with which to purchase food, goods and services. He sent the success story to FDR. In Ann Arbor, you took care of one another. It’s pure Rotary.
At first Franklin Roosevelt’s administration practiced Keynesian economics, but all that was pulled back at the end of 1936, and the nation plunged into even worse economic straights. Incredibly, Rotarians and other organizations along with Ray Dolph found the money to build Burton Tower in 1937. It became, next to the Big House, the most frequently published symbol of the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor and the University, reaching for the sky.
There was still no money in town but Ray found the wherewithal to send his straight-A University of Michigan graduate son to Princeton graduate school and to study with Einstein. Others helped. It was another investment in the future when times were bad. Ray’s boy then came back to teach at the University of Michigan and apply mathematics to some interesting challenges.
Ray Dolph’s son did the plasma flow studies for the nose cone of the Atlas rocket. John Glenn went into space in Ray Dolph’s son’s nose cone. And the Atlas rocket became the most successful rocket in history. (Between you and me, it doesn’t look all that different from Burton Tower.)
Ray Dolph worked with the town and the town worked with him. He had come to Ann Arbor hoping to become a doctor and instead, he became a funeral director, among his enterprises. He held on to his businesses through the Great Depression and Lakewood came into town limits in 1954. The empty lots sold out to contractors who built modest ranches for returned veterans. The pipes from Ray’s system still water the neighborhood today.
There is a Dolph Park, a 54-acre gift with two small lakes that is a famous gathering spot for birders during the spring and fall migrations.
I remember the sweet and genial man who, with the Rotarians and others, built the town. I visit Burton Town and see his name at its base, with so many others, who found the means--when there were none--to help make the University of Michigan “the Harvard of the Midwest” as they used to say and sent their sons out into the world to prove it. Today, around the world, it is not Harvard, or Yale or Princeton that the smartest kids aspire to. It is the University of Michigan.
There is something in this story for all of us today. And it is here, in Rotary, where everything becomes possible. Through community organization…town building…the future is ours to shape…even in these tough times. At least that is what Ann Arbor’s Ray Dolph and his fellow Rotarians believed in 1916. Service above self. And who is here today to argue with them?