FAIRBORN — For decades, Ray Wylam spent his time, money, and talent opening up the world of exploring to young Fairborn men and women.
His list of volunteer accolades is lengthy, and includes the Victoria Theatre, the Beaver Creek Wetlands Association, and the city of Fairborn planning board, to name a few. However, in his life he has earned a few other titles, including mentor, father figure, and hero from former students who say he touched their lives in ways no one else could.
Wylam, a former aerospace engineer out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, spent most of his adult life volunteering. He was the leader of Explorers Post 72, at one time the largest Explorers post in the state of Ohio.
Wylam would take teenagers from Fairborn High School on adventures across the United States, visiting Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, the Rockies, and hiking the Smokey Mountains every spring break. The most grueling trip was a 23-day excursion to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
Laura Duron, who traveled with Wylam from 1975 to 1981, recalls hiking up the Sangre De Cristo mountain range at 3 a.m., so they made it to the top of the mountain by sunrise.
“I fell in love with the mountain because of him,” she said. “If there’s anything I did in high school, that is the most significant.”
Wylam never married and has no children, but the hundreds of children that passed under his tutelage were his family, Duron said. Many of Wylam’s students now have children of their own.
“He was very kind, he was all about helping you grow,” said Dave Nolin, now Director of Conservation at Five Rivers MetroParks. “He was someone who would get people to go on these adventures at a formative time in their lives. And it was adventure; you’re going off sometimes with people you don’t know very well, to places you’ve never been to and sometimes you’ve never heard of.”
Wylam, 88, is currently a resident of Wickshire Fairborn. Through a program called Wickshire Wishes, residents are given the opportunity to do something they love or try something new one more time.
Wylam’s wish was to go camping.
Krista Harding, the Wise and Well Director at Wickshire, worked with the 4H Campground Camp Clifton to make Wylam’s wish come true. She reached out to former explorers on Facebook, expecting to get two or three responses. On the day of the camp-out, 22 people came from as far as Florida and Michigan to visit him.
“That, in a way, was surprising to see so many came,” Wylam said. “I was happy to see them and a little embarrassed by all their kind remarks.”
The group roasted hot dogs, ate macaroni and baked beans, made s’mores, and talked into the night.
“He didn’t want to give up and go to bed,” Harding said. “He wanted to hang around as long as he could.”
Doug Weaver, a business owner, said he has recreated some of his experiences with the Explorers with his children.
“The whole evening, I never saw a smile so big in my life,” Weaver said. “Ear to ear.”
Wylam lived very modestly, Harding said. As some of his campers got older, they figured out that the money they had paid to go on their adventures was less than the cost of the whole trip. Wylam supplemented the program with his own money.
“The older I get the more I appreciate that he is one of the greatest heroes in my life,” said Joanne Kirsch-Brokamp, whose first trip with Wylam was in 1976 as an advisor. “How many people would take a group of teenagers across the country for three weeks? We used maps, there was no GPS.”
Ellen Shelley was a first year teacher in April of 1974 when she and her husband Kent chaperoned about 30 teenagers on a trip to the Smokey Mountains. The Shelleys stayed close to Ohio for their excursions, but there was no shortage of fun to be had with cave exploring at Mammoth Caves, tobogganing in Angola, Indiana, and horseback riding up Mt. Laconte.
“I cannot imagine how many kids he influenced over the years, but to the ones I am close to and still hear from these days, Ray Wylam is a one-of-a-kind legend,” she said.
The Explorers is an affiliate of Boy Scouts of America, but has been a co-ed institution since 1971, when it was opened to girls. Elizabeth Tuttle was one of the first girls to join the program in 1971.
“My parents didn’t think girls should do all these adventurous things, but I wanted to so badly,” she said. “We saw things we never thought we’d see. It was just pure fun.”
Kids were active almost every weekend, either going on trips or raising money for trips, working stalls, picking up part time gigs, and doing fundraisers. Tuttle said Wylam’s greatest gift to them was letting them be themselves, balancing freedom with a learned self-responsibility.
“He was an example of kindness,” she said. “He had boundaries, but he wasn’t strict. He let us do all the silly things, let us be kids and have fun, but we had a responsibility too.”
Reach London Bishop at 937-502-4532 or follow @LBishopFDH on Twitter.