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“To change one person”

A Conversation with Donor Mario Ray

(Aug. 25, 2021) Dr. Mario Ray (pictured, left) and his wife, Teresa, established the Charles E. Howard Memorial Scholarship Fund at the Community Foundation in 2019. This fund (named for Ray's father-in-law, pictured right) provides educational assistance to African American males who wish to pursue a vocational or technical career. Raised in Orange Mound and Frayser, Ray returned to Memphis after graduating from UT Martin to attend medical school. An Internist and Medical Director of Inpatient Rehabilitation and Subacute Skilled Nursing at Regional One Health, he is also the co-founder of Ignite M.O.B., a hybrid incubator and accelerator for minority-owned businesses.

You’re from Orange Mound. What was your path from there to medical school?

I was doing my best to go with the crowd, to do what my brother and friends were doing. I was looking to get into trouble. No one would let me do it: “You’re the smart one.”

Mom was a nurse, with nursing books at home; I was fascinated. I gravitated toward biological science. In seventh grade, I read a book of careers. At that time, the highest-paid profession was physician. I thought, “that’s going to be me.” What put me on the right path was going to White Station High School; I had teachers who really encouraged me. My friends were all children of “somebodies” – physicians, attorneys, news anchors. They were expected to go to college. I didn’t know that path, but I knew I had to do it.

My guidance counselor told me I wasn’t smart enough to go to college or to be a physician. But I skipped the twelfth grade, went straight to college, and graduated in four years, cum laude, and then attended medical school at UT. The Dean of the College of Medicine, Dr. James Hunt, put me in touch with a full-ride scholarship before I even got my acceptance letter.

What I truly believe is that whatever plan God has for you, he has for you. My guidance counselor said I wasn’t smart, my mom wasn’t always around, my dad was in a different state. I want to make it easier for someone else. Not that you don’t have to put in the work, but you shouldn’t walk around aimlessly through this life. Those teachers who helped me, the guy who got me a scholarship to UT Martin, Dr. Hunt—people who were strategically placed in my life to help me along the way. I want to be that person for other people. That’s why I look to give back and to bring people up.

We all see the troubles in this city, state, and nation. I’m one of those people who, instead of just criticizing…what am I—Mario Ray—going to do to try to fix it, to try to alleviate the problem? Whatever I can do, I’ll do something to change one person.

Tell us about your father-in-law, Charles E. Howard, in whose memory you established a scholarship fund.

A sorority sister of Teresa’s at UT Martin introduced her to me in the fall of 1996. I knew she was it for me when we first met. She called her dad every single day. That was something completely foreign to me. He immediately embraced me. When I walked in, I was his son, immediately. I was not used to parental affection or guidance. He was the first man who ever told me that he loved me. And he would tell me all the time: “I love you, son.” It meant everything to me to finally have, in my 20s, someone I could call father in a traditional sense. Someone who loved me and looked out for me, gave me sage advice, just talked and had fun.

I immediately adopted a lot of his ways. With my kids, I patterned myself after him. I made sure to tell my kids I love them every day, to hug them, to sit down and talk with them. I never missed a single event or opportunity to volunteer at their school. Like my father-in-law, I made sure I was present. [The Rays have a 20-year-old son who is a pre-med junior at Xavier University in Louisiana and an 18-year-old daughter studying at Los Angeles College of Music.]

There was nothing he wouldn’t do for us and nothing we wouldn’t do for him. When he passed in 2019, I couldn’t think of a better way to help his legacy live on than to establish the scholarship. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.

What inspired you to start the scholarship fund?

I had been thinking about it for some time. I wanted a way to contribute to creating generational wealth, reducing recidivism and crime, and providing opportunities for families to be together.

It sparked from an idea: I ran into an old next-door neighbor. His family was like mine: some went to school, some didn’t. Some were comfortable, some were in jail. At some point, he got himself together and went to technical school. He is an HVAC technician and makes a good living.

My father-in-law, too, knew that a college career was not his path. Charles was a flooring specialist. He was extremely successful because he was a hard worker and never met a stranger.

What is the easiest way for some of these guys who can’t seem to catch a break, where school is just not their thing? If you give someone a respectable job, they would much rather do that than hit you upside the head and take your things. Once they get caught up, they can’t catch up. The get one felony and can’t get a job, but they’re expected to be a respectable member of society. Those are the guys I’m trying to reach. Give that person a good education in a Vo-Tech school where he can get a good living, earn some respect, and turn around and influence his family.

You just need to change that ONE person and you can change a whole family. He gets a job, they’re contributing to the tax base, they get a house, their kids can attend better schools, there’s stuff for them to live for and work for. There’s a cascade of things that can happen if you can reach that one person.

As you’ve matured as a professional, how have you grown as a philanthropist?

It started with my involvement as a member of Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church—just giving my time. As my time became scarcer but I made more money, I continued donating to the church but also gave to organizations where my dollars can stretch far: MIFA, the Mid-South Food Bank, Neighborhood Christian Centers, and Memphis Union Mission. I grew up a hungry child; my mom made too much money for us to quality for free lunch, but I had no breakfast, no lunch, and knew dinner might be sugar toast. At one point, my wife and I were on food stamps when I was in medical school. I know what it means to be without.

I thought: I can start changing whole families, not just feeding them. Not giving them a fish but teaching them to fish. Let me give them something more sustainable so they won’t need MIFA or the Food Bank. Through the scholarship, I can make generational changes by helping someone get a good job.

A colleague and I also created the nonprofit Ignite M.O.B. (which stands for minority-owned businesses), a social enterprise that is an incubator and accelerator for Black/Brown, Indigenous, and People of Color businesses. This fall, we hope to have our first cohort of 10-15 people with an idea for a small business they can grow and scale.

My goal is to create an ecosysytem that provides resources—not just capital—for those businesses to succeed: capital, professional mentors and advice, and marketing and social media training, etc. This will be my greatest achievement, not if but when we do it.

I’m from Memphis. I care deeply about Memphis, and I don’t want to live anywhere else in the world. This is my home, but I firmly know it can be a whole lot better than it is. And that starts with economics.

This is not a pet project. I’ve been building this slowly for a decade or more. I know where I came from. It has always made me feel good to help someone. That’s part of why I’m a physician. I don’t need the accolades. I’m the guy at the end of a church function who’s sweeping up. Let me take that burden off someone else; I’m not allergic to manual labor. I wasn’t born with this white coat on. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to help.

To donate to the Charles E. Howard Memorial Scholarship, click here.