James Eugene "Gene" Stray, age 96, passed away Dec. 14, 2022, at home surrounded by his family. Gene was born Sept. 7, 1926, in Stanley, North Dakota in a small farmhouse built by his father. ln 1937, the family left the hardscrabble life of the depression and dust bowl and moved to Centralia, Washington, where his dad had relatives from Norway, the Kuliens.
He attended Centralia schools and graduated in 1944.
Gene served both his country and his community. ln October of 1944, he reported to U.S. Navy boot camp in Norman, Oklahoma then trained at Banana River NAS, Florida as a turret gunner. A favorite memory of Gene's is the purchase of his 1923 Chandler Royal Dispatch touring car during leave in 1945, a car he'd had his eyes on since he was 12. He bought the car from a dealer in Centralia and drove it (with help from a couple Navy buddies) to Florida and back to Centralia following his honorable discharge in July of 1946. It was not an easy trip in the 1940s but the stately car held up remarkably and remains in the family today. After the war in 1947, Gene purchased a neighborhood grocery on North Tower Street in Centralia. After several years in the grocery business, he joined his father and brother in the home building and remodeling business. It was during this time he learned the electrical trade and later started his own business (J.E. Stray Electric) as a licensed contractor. ln 1972, Gene sold the business and joined Centralia College as a maintenance electrician, retiring in 1988.
For 40 years he served as a volunteer firefighter, and later battalion chief and commissioner for Fire District 12.
Beginning in 1950, after the death of his beloved sister Dorothy, he assisted his elderly parents in the upbringing of his twin nephews, Chet and Chuck Higgins. ln 1953, Gene managed to woo a beautiful Rochester High School valedictorian, Barbara Hyyppa, into marriage. They raised four children — Alan, Paul, Lynn and Carol — in a house he built on Waunch's Prairie and remained there for the rest of his life.
Gene and Barbara were known for their ability to fly around the dance floor to the music of the big band era. Gene was a lifelong antique auto enthusiast and began collecting in his high school years. He and Barbara were 60 year charter members of the Centralia-Chehalis Vintage Auto Club. Gene was also a member of the American Legion Grant Hodge Post 17 for 72 years.
Many will remember Gene for his humor and antics. Neighborhood kids remember him towing them around behind his pickup in the snow on any kind of makeshift sled. He was revered in the neighborhood for the giant 40-foot tall swing set he built so "the kids" could swing really high. Fourth of July was another favorite when he occasionally would bring out his U.S. Navy surplus flare gun and "light up the neighborhood" until local law enforcement took notice. He never missed an opportunity to repeat a joke or recite a choice phrase.
Gene was preceded in death by his parents Mina and Oscar Stray, brother Orrin, sister Dorothy Stray Higgins and great-granddaughter Brylee Pennington.
He is survived by his wife of 69 years, Barbara; sons Alan and Paul (Toni) Stray; daughters Lynn (Lorwill) Cruickshank and Carol (Carl) Forsman; and grandchildren Brittany (Brandan) Pennington, Brandon Stray, Brett (Andrea) Potter, Landon Cruickshank, Cal Cruickshank and Charles Roberson; as well as five great-grandchildren; nephews Chet (Vickie) Higgins, Chuck (Nan) Higgins, Jerry (Jane) Stray and Dennis Stray; niece Dorothy Lingen; and several great-nieces and nephews, cousins and lifelong friends.
The family would like to thank the team from Providence Hospice for the loving care given to Gene in his last weeks. A celebration of life will take place at noon on Jan. 21, 2023, at the Centralia-Chehalis Vintage Auto Club, 17543 Pendleton St. SW, Rochester, Washington with a luncheon to follow. Remembrances may be made to a veterans' organization of your choice.
America has lost another of its greatest generation.