If you’ve ever visited French Regional Park in Plymouth, you might have enjoyable memories of walking the trails through lush forests, paddling along the scenic shoreline of Medicine Lake, or sunning yourself on the pristine beach with giant umbrellas and glamorous views of the Minneapolis skyline.
Maybe you remember climbing around its signature play area of ropes and wooden bridges, cross-country skiing through a sparkling winter wonderland, or racing your friends down the steep sledding hill.
And maybe, just maybe, you’re lucky enough to remember meeting and becoming friends with one of the park’s most loyal guests — Ray Robinson.
A Patron since You Had to Pay
Ray, 97, has been a patron of the park since it opened — even before Three Rivers owned the property.
“I’ve been here so long that I even remember when we had to pay to come here,” Ray said, letting out a hearty chuckle. “But now it’s free to visit the park, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
Ray, wearing his WWII Veterans ball cap and a welcoming smile, sat comfortably and contentedly on a park bench near the beach at French, waving and greeting park guests as they strolled past him. His cheerful eyes twinkled in the afternoon sunlight and he smiled brightly, eager to share his favorite memories of French Regional Park.
“I’m a parks person. I’ve been to many, many parks and out of all of them, French Park is THEE top,” he said with excitement, raising his pointer finger toward the cloudless bluebird sky.
Creating Connections through the Park
According to Ray, French Regional Park is a great place for anyone and nearly every activity you want to do. “You can have your picnics. You can sit at the lake. You can swim, you can fish, or you can lay in the sun if you want. You can even meditate if that’s your thing,” he said matter-of-factly.
“In the winter you can go ice fishing, sledding and skiing. This is a year-round park and that’s what I like about it,” Ray said.
Ray noted that he’s seen weddings in the park and even mentioned he had his family photos taken there, too. He also talked about taking his grandsons to play in the park when they were younger. “We’d walk and have lunch and sometimes feed our sandwiches to the ducks,” he laughed. “They really like it here, too.”
But Ray’s favorite thing to do in the park? Listen to jazz and meet new friends.
“I come to French Park to relax and to play music. I play the greats. You know, like Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney,” Ray said.
When Ray visits the park with his wife, Lottie, he brings along his CD player and sits at the benches overlooking the lake. “A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘I like your music!’ I’ve met a lot of friends that way,” he said.
Ray’s wife, Lottie, confirmed Ray’s knack for making friends in the park.
“I must say Ray really is a people-person. He enjoys sitting and talking to so many people. This one time when we were out to eat at iHop, these two women looked over at our table and said, ‘Hey, I think that’s Ray!’ And they came over to say hello and talked about how they loved hearing his music play in the park. It was really something,” Lottie said with an admiring smile. “It was really touching.”
Ray also reminisced about meeting his friend, the late Frank Snowden. “He’d come out for two or three days a week and take pictures of birds and look for eagles’ nests. I struck up a great friendship with him,” Ray said.
He also remembers meeting and befriending other park guests from Russia, Ukraine, Kenya and Panama. “I’ve met a lot of people from all over the world!”
Ray has even befriended a few staff members at French.
“Staff at French Regional Park know Ray and his wife, Lottie, very well. When he arrives at the gate, the phone lines light up and everyone is informed that ‘Ray is here!’ And staff will make their way to the lake to visit them,” said Jill Caffee, Park Operations Supervisor at French Regional Park.
Friendliness Begets Friendliness
Ray attributes his knack for making new friends to advice from his father.
“My dad taught me all about being kind. He was the son of freed slaves, you know. Which makes me the grandson of freed slaves. My dad said to always be friendly, to smile and say hello to strangers.”
“When I was eight years old, I asked him, ‘But Daddy, what if they don’t say ‘Hi’ back?’ And he said to me, ‘What have you lost, son?’”
“That has stuck with me forever. And I say ‘Hi’ to whoever I can,” Ray smiled. “Friendliness begets friendliness.”
A Quiet Place to Reflect
Ray is a World War II veteran. Stationed in Italy, he served from 1943-45. He earned three bronze stars for three major battles.
Ray said he went to war with friends and came home without some of them. “I was lucky to come home. I’m fortunate enough to be under God’s care and I give credit to my Maker,” he said.
“There’s a lot I could talk about that time in my life,” he continued, “but let’s save that for another time. After you go through all that stuff in war, life is different. So when you can find quiet spots in the park and reflect on your life, you really value that.”
The Best Place on the Planet
Ray said he visits the park as often as he can when living in Minnesota. He and Lottie are “snowbirds,” traveling out-of-state during the cold, winter Minnesota months.
“When I visit my daughter in southern California over the winter, she asks me, ‘Oh Daddy Ray, what do you do there in Minnesota?’ And I say, ‘I go to French Park!’” He smiled wide and laughed heartily.
“I have a deep sentimental attachment to this park. I say I just as soon be here than any other place on the planet,” Ray said.
About the Author
Alyssa Schauer is part of the marketing team at Three Rivers. She earned her Bachelor's degree in poetry writing and communications at Winona State University and formerly worked as a journalist at a small-town newspaper. After college, she volunteered with the Minnesota Conservation Corps to clear and maintain trails in Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters. Outside of work, she spends time in the woods looking at everything up close (especially ferns and spiders), writing poems about nature, canoeing with her husband, planning Halloween costumes year-round, playing Nintendo and raising a pride of four naughty (but cute!) cats.
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