Sexton's Corner, Vol. 56 – Ray Sexton: 'A First-Class Gentleman – A Tribute to My Dad'
Sometimes in life something happens that brings one's world to a screeching halt. This past week my Dad, Ray Sexton, passed away. He had a wonderful life at the age of 88, soon to have been 89 on August 17th. With his health deteriorating and doctors telling the family he simply wasn't a candidate for any type of surgery… we all knew the end of his remarkable journey was fast approaching here on Earth, and a new journey was going to begin in heaven. Losing one's parents is one of life's toughest moments, but it is a hurdle we all have to face. I want to share a few thoughts about my Dad, who was one of the most amazing men who ever graced the planet!
He was a first-class gentleman in every way, who literally chose a career that brought joy and happiness to thousands of couples in many towns in and around Indianapolis, Indiana. He taught ballroom dancing like no one ever had before or since, in large classes with up to 50 couples in each class, six to seven nights per week for almost 40 years! On Aug 1st at the funeral services held in Las Vegas for family and close friends each of his kids participated in the eulogy. My brother Mike said, "To say our Dad was just a dance teacher is like saying Babe Ruth was just a baseball player, or Tiger Woods was just a golfer. Our Dad was simply the best at what he did… a pioneer, like an astronaut reaching out to a world no one had ever entered yet!" Dad is a legend back in Indiana for his unique and extraordinary ballroom class lessons. No one else ever did it before or after him at the level of excellence our Dad did!
Dad was in the army during WWII, and was stationed in England. He had been teaching at Arthur Murray's in Indianapolis before joining the army, so they occasionally had Dad teach dancing to the GI's for recreation as periodically a truckload of English ladies arrived at the base. It was in England where he learned international ballroom dancing on weekend leaves. In fact, he became the first American to be certified in the Bronze Standard from overseas, which made the front page news in London. During the week, Dad worked as a Morse code expert on the radio, helping our planes land with no lights after returning from bombing missions during the war. When he returned home he knew what he wanted to do for a living… teach dancing. He continued at Arthur Murray's in Indianapolis, and later managed there, as well as at Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio simultaneously. From there in the early '50s he was asked to go to Santa Monica, California to manage Arthur Murray's.
While driving once through Las Vegas, Dad was one of the fortunate ones who witnessed one of poker's most legendary heads-up matches on the sidewalk outside of Binion's Horseshoe: Johnny Moss versus Nick the Greek. Millions passed back and forth and the match lasted six months. At the end, Nick the Greek finally stood up and said, "Mr. Moss, I'm going to have to let you go." Little did our Dad know then, that he would return to live out his retirement in the town he loved, Las Vegas, for his last 18 years, starting around 1990.
Once Dad moved out to Las Vegas to live out his later years, he loved to play poker. What a positive impression he left on the players, dealers, and poker room managers! He was the most polite, well-behaved player any of them had ever seen. The impact of his congenial personality was amazing! Almost every week I run into someone who always asks about Dad and how he is doing these days. The first 10 seconds any one ever met him, they just liked him. He always had a gift that so many are not blessed with. His class, eloquence, and style with that contagious laugh of his made him one of their favorites. He was simply class from A to Z! I've had many dealers and poker room managers who remembered Dad say, "Your Dad was the nicest man in the world. What a dream job we would all have if all the customers were like your Dad." I've always been so proud of my Dad, just as my brothers and sister have our whole lives!
What many of the poker players didn't know about Dad was what a legend he was back in Indiana where he taught his ballroom class lessons! If his funeral was held 20 years earlier in his prime there would have been more people paying their respects than you might see for the President of the United States. The difference he made for all of those couples' lives through dancing is hard to measure. When couples learn how to dance together their entire lives are richly enhanced. Very few people are fortunate to have a job their whole life that accomplishes this for others! Dad was such an exceptional human being and an example for all of us to follow. How to treat other people is such an important lesson in life, and we were fortunate to have the best teacher of all.
Dad wasn't comfortable with the cost of dance lessons in the studios, as he had a dream to do what no one has ever done before: Start class lessons and only charge $40 for an eight-week course. Can you imagine how lucky these couples were to take ballroom lessons from the master of masters, meeting once per week for a two-hour lesson over eight weeks? That is only $5 per week for each couple! The social friends that were made and the dances they would go to, with Dad offering them Courses 1 through 8 with a fun variety of new steps, helping them become excellent dancers along the way, was the gift Dad gave them all.
Dad was famous in Indiana for holding some of the biggest and most successful dances for his students. After all, he taught all over: Bloomington, Columbus, Muncie, Shelbyville, Franklin, Seymour, Indianapolis, Brownstown, and South Bend. He also taught in many junior high schools, high schools and colleges such as Notre Dame, St. Mary's of the Woods, Valparaiso University, Ball State, and of course Indiana University. The most famous and biggest ballroom in Indiana was and still is the Indiana Roof in downtown Indianapolis. Dad's dances were so popular he would draw reservations from 27 to 30 states and four to six countries, along with so many of his happy couples from nearby towns that took his lessons. Dad's dances were legendary at the Indiana Roof, as the details of the orchestra and music selection were always overseen by Dad. He knew what everyone wanted. It was like when he taught his class lessons. He would tell the students ahead of time, as they listened with the guys on one side of the room and the ladies on the other… here is where you are going to make your mistake, so let's try it now with partners. Sure enough, at that precise moment of the step, where the students would inevitably get lost, Dad would laugh and stop the music, as everyone would laugh with him. Then he would break it down and the students would start to really learn it. He made it so much fun for all of them! Another genius technique Dad insisted on was rotating the guys up and down the line when the music stopped to get another partner to lead. It not only improved the guy's lead, but the lady's ability to follow the steps. Just as importantly, it allowed the lesson to be a fun social happening at the same time, not just a dance lesson.
My Dad had brought Jim Banta into Arthur Murray's many years ago. Banta later became President of Arthur Murray's. Jim brought in George Theiss, who is president of the company today. Jim and Dad were very good friends and worked together in the beginning. Jim couldn't understand why so many students would come to the office to trade in their private lessons purchased for any of the class lessons taught by Ray Sexton. This was unheard of, but it was the beginning of what would be Dad's calling in life. When Jim Banta was President of Arthur Murray's he would sometimes fly down to a town where Dad was teaching to watch the master at work. He would take tedious notes on every word and move Dad made, trying to figure out why he was the best class ballroom teacher they had ever seen! What was his secret? How did he do it?
One of Dad's favorite things at his big dances he held, whether it was at the Indiana Roof, Bloomington, or that famous resort, French Lick, where Larry Bird was from, was to have his own kids entertain his students at intermission at the dance. I am Dad's oldest son, born in 1946, while Mike followed one year and twelve days later in 1947. We were two baby boomers for sure, and by 1960 we were the first to do dance shows at a few of Dad's dances. After high school in 1965, Mike went to Ohio State on a gymnastics scholarship, while I went to the University of Oklahoma on one as well.
As time went by, Dad would have us do a few shows in the '70s and early '80s, when we all got together. As our sister Stephanie and youngest brother Lance grew up, they quickly became the stars of the show for Dad's dances, and how he enjoyed those evenings. I can still see the smile on his face, as though it were yesterday. Mike and I could dance a little bit, but Stephanie and Lance are two of the best dancers you'll ever see in the world! Both have been professional dancers their whole lives. Stephanie won on that popular TV show "Dance Fever" in the '80s and is the only one in the family to dance in the World Ballroom Championships in England. Today she is teaching dancing in Florida, and dancing is and always will be her whole world. If you have ever seen Mike and I dance with Steph, we just hold on to her for dear life — she is amazing! Lance has competed all over the United States and has won too many awards to mention here. Today he owns a beautiful and very successful dance studio in Melbourne, Florida and has nine teachers who work for him. Dad had a total of six children and was always so proud of each one and their many accomplishments. Rod and Jeff both graduated from the University of Indiana. Rod majored in business and has been very successful in the furniture business his whole life. Today he lives in Sacramento, California. Jeff went to Indiana on a full classical piano scholarship, and has traveled the world as political envoy for the State Department his whole career. In fact, he was at the Pentagon, on the other side of the building, when the plane crashed into it on that fateful 9/11.
Ray Sexton (front) and his six children. From left to right: Mike, Tom, Lance, Steph, Rod and Jeff</center>
I recall going back in time to 1982, remembering how our family met for a reunion at Bloomington, Indiana to enjoy one of Dad's popular dances. Lance and his professional partner simply put on a spectacular eight-dance professional show that brought the house down! Believe me, no one would ever want to have to follow that act! Mike and I were happy to watch our little brother do his thing as we enjoyed several pretty strong drinks during the show. After Lance was done with his show, Dad said, "I know there are a lot of students here tonight who remember my two oldest boys Tom and Mike, who used to perform for you. What do you say we bring them out here impromptu to do a few dances for you for old time's sake with their sister Stephanie? Would you like that?"
Of course the audience loved all of this, as we more or less were drafted to follow Lance's performance. Mike did four dances and I did four dances as Dad would have us alternate each dance he asked us to do. For some reason when I was doing the cha-cha with Steph, I tried to recapture my youth and do a flip in open position, like I used to be able to do in my younger days. Instead, I fell right on my gluteus maximus! It was so hilarious and as I quickly got up to continue the dance, I glanced over at Dad who laughed so hard, while he slapped his knee and shook his head, watching us recover, breaking right on the two beat as though nothing had happened! Dad always had a soothing answer that seem to fit in any situation, as he came over after my memorable exhibition that night and said, "Well, Tom, for heaven's sake." At many of our family reunions, Dad loved to show this film from the past, and I can hear him laugh now as I'm writing this.
In Dad's life he found three wonderful ladies, and at different stages in his life found himself married to each one. Around 1945, upon returning to Arthur Murray's in Indianapolis, he met Gloria. She was the best teacher and dancer at the studio, and Dad was the best male dancer and teacher. They fell in love and within two weeks got married. She was my and Mike's mother and was stunningly beautiful. By the early '50s they divorced and Mike and I were raised in Dayton, Ohio by Mom. We loved her very much, but always looked forward to taking the train over to Indianapolis to visit Dad and his family with his other four children. As Mike and I got older we would drive over to see Dad and tumble and play with the kids all weekend. Unfortunately our Mom passed away 20 years ago.
In the early '50 Dad met a lady named Beverly, who was beautiful on both the outside and inside, and who became the mother of Dad's other four children, Jeff, Stephanie, Rod, and Lance. She was a loving, good mom who did a wonderful job raising the children. She also did many dancing exhibitions with Dad and helped him with his classes for several years. After the kids grew up Dad and Bev separated and divorced. Today she lives in Melbourne, Florida, where Lance and Steph live. Bev has a lot of class and all of us love her very much. She has traveled to Las Vegas for many family reunions, and has always been friends with Dad's third wife, Sandy.
It was 27 years ago when Dad met Sandy, and Dad was about 62, still going strong teaching his classes. It isn't often between the ages of 62 and 89 one's dad finds true love to complete a happy personal life…. Dad was lucky to find Sandy. It was around 1989 when Dad slipped on some ice back in Indianapolis off the porch and cracked the back of his head severely. Without brain surgery to relieve the pressure he would have died then. It was this accident that caused Dad to retire from teaching any more dance classes. In 1990, they moved out to Las Vegas so Dad could enjoy these past 18 years in retirement. The first 14 years Dad loved playing cards and dancing with Sandy all over town. They got to see all the Vegas shows together, and it was always easy to see how much they cared for each other every day.
Ray Sexton and his third wife, Sandy, happily married for 27 years</center>
Dad's last four years between 84 and 88 were more difficult as his health began to change. It wasn't easy to go out to play poker, as his hearing, sight and legs were fading. He stayed home a lot, and watched some TV as best he could from his wheelchair. His favorite show, of course, was the "World Poker Tour," where Mike has become a true celebrity as an announcer with Vince Van Patten, a show now in its seventh season! Dad was always Mike's number one fan when he competed in the World Series of Poker or anywhere else. Later, with his health problems, Dad would have to root for Mike from home. Mike deserves a lot of credit, as he told Dad to retire, stop working, and come to Vegas to enjoy his retirement. From 1990 right up to 2008 Mike made it possible for this to happen, and our whole family is so grateful for what he did for Dad! Thanks, Mike.
I believe the true test of love comes when one is losing his health and the other half is there every step of the way. Our Dad was lucky to have a wonderful woman in Sandy who was there for Dad right up to the end. She richly enhanced our Dad's life, and I strongly believe without her, Dad wouldn't have had nearly the fulfilling life he did in his twilight years. Words will never be able to thank you enough, Sandy. Those last four years Dad had another angel by his side to help him get through things day to day. Her name was Maria Gemma Flor Manansala, who was Dad's home-care provider. We affectionately called her Gemma. She has a beautiful 18-year-old daughter ready to go to college and an 11-year-old boy, named Brian Christopher. Her husband Cesar is lucky to have such a caring and wonderful wife. Our entire family can only say thank you for the help you gave Dad those last four years of his life!
My ex-wife Janis came to my Dad's funeral services to pay her respects, which meant so much to me. She loved my Dad and he loved her. The day after the service I got an email from her I wanted to share part of with you:
I just wanted to tell you again how sorry I am that Ray is no longer with us.
A small remembrance of your Dad
Sandy and I had gone out to dinner and then a show at the Orleans a few months ago. I dropped her off and then drove away, and before I got to the gate she called and asked if I could come back. I thought something was wrong and she said no. Ray shaved and dressed up hoping you would step in for a visit. You know, I turned around and spent almost two hours chatting with him and Sandy. He was always so sweet to me and I'll always appreciate his genuine love for me. I felt it a privilege to be able to call him Dad.
The Cab is Parked,
(Note: A small service was held in Las Vegas at the Palms Mortuary on Jones on Aug 1st where Dad was remembered and paid tribute to by family and close friends. On Friday, Aug 8th, Dad will be buried in Indiana at the Elizabeth Town Cemetery a few miles north of Muncie, per his wishes. There will be a service for Ray Sexton in Indianapolis at Flanner and Buchanan Mortuary at 1:00 PM for on Friday, Aug 8th, located on Broad Ripple Rd.)
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Tom Sexton is a featured columnist for PokerNews.com. Tom attended the University of Oklahoma on a full gymnastic scholarship, where he was captain of the team four straight years, becoming the first NCAA All-American and Big Eight Champion in OU's gymnastics history in 1968. The Sexton family is well established in poker and includes Tom's brother Mike, the World Poker Tour commentator and poker's "First Ambassador", as voted by his peers. Tom welcomes your thoughts and comments about any of his articles. His e-mail is [email protected]