Where the river flows
Ray and Kay Eckstein built a life on the Mississippi and it brought them back to Marquette.
The story of their historic gift to the Law School.
When Raymond Eckstein and Kathryn Henderick met at Marquette, the two youngsters — that’s what they were then, a young man and woman starting out on promising lives — found something special in each other. They married three years later and created the most marvelous legacy, a family that grew from one child to eight, all raised in the tiny Wisconsin town of Cassville, a place Kay would not have believed she would learn to love and call home. But home it became.
And Ray, who couldn’t drum up quite enough lawyering business in that tiny town to keep busy, found himself looking to the river nearby, the Mississippi, thinking about the boats running up and down it and about how that was all too intriguing to resist. So he bought one small towboat, just one. It was already named, which seemed a good omen; it was called the Père Marquette. And it was the key to enormous possibilities.
Over time Ray leased more boats — tugs and tows and switch boats and barges. He sold one company and founded another, a transportation company, in 1978. He built that company into one of the nation’s largest line-haul towboat companies, and it brought the family unimagined success. Then Ray and Kay thought about the things that mattered most in their lives together — family, faith, Catholic education. They thought about where they found each other, and they placed a call to Marquette.
“Hello, Father Wild. This is Ray Eckstein.”
|“We didn’t realize at the time that it was going to be the largest donation given to Marquette.”
“Ray, it’s nice to hear from you. How are you and Kay and the family?”
Fine, just fine. … Listen, Father Wild, Kay and I have a surprise for you. We’ve been talking about making a gift to Marquette for the Law School. We want to get something going there, to get people excited so that they’ll jump on board and find a way to give, too.
“Father Wild, I think we’re about to make your day.”
Ray Eckstein grew up in Cassville, went to Campion Jesuit High School in Prairie du Chien, Wis., and came to Marquette in 1943 at 17 on a basketball scholarship. He was a skinny six-footer, and he wore his No. 11 jersey proudly his freshman and sophomore years playing for Coach Al Chandler. It was a time when basketball began to change, he remembers, when the so-called big men came into the game, like the nearly seven-foot George Mikan, whom Ray met on the court when Marquette played DePaul. Mikan went on to become an All-American and one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players, and Ray buckled down to prepare for medical school, with every intention of one day taking over his uncle’s Racine, Wis., practice.
He was in his second year of medical studies and had just finished an exam when he and a buddy decided to celebrate by grabbing a beer at the Ardmore Bar, a favorite campus hangout. Ray knew the freshman girls living at Merrity Hall ate their meals in the restaurant that was connected to the bar. He poked his head into the dining room to see whether there was anyone new that he should meet.
“I saw her and I said ‘she’s for me’,” he remembers. “She was the best-looking girl I’d ever seen.”
Kay remembers that first moment, too, of course, but what she remembers most was Ray’s persistence. “That definitely was one of the things that attracted me to him from the beginning,” she says.
It turned out that Ray didn’t like medical school — “It just didn’t suit me,” he says, whereas law school was an instant fit. The one constant through those years was Ray’s pursuit of Kay. “We had a great relationship, but she didn’t want to go steady,” he says. “She dated another fellow on Friday and me on Saturday. When she finally said she’d marry me, it was with the condition that we wouldn’t go back to my hometown, and that was just fine with me.”
They married in 1948 and graduated a year later: Ray in February with a law degree and Kay in June with a degree in speech. Ray tried to keep his promise and began working with a classmate to get a law practiced started in Milwaukee. But because of the times or their inexperience, they didn’t have the contacts to make it work.
“Everybody said you ought to go home where you’re well-known,” Ray says.
When they realized their first child was on the way, the Ecksteins made the practical decision to move to Cassville. “Babies change a lot of things,” Kay says.
Cassville is a small town, just 1,300 people then and fewer today. It’s located at the southern edge of the state with 300-foot bluffs to one side and the Mississippi River bordering the other. For Kay, who grew up in Chicago and loved the social opportunities of a big city, it took awhile but the majesty of the setting finally won her over. “The first time I saw the bluffs I thought they were mountains, which made everybody laugh. I really enjoyed the river, and we had so many children, we had no time to think about what we were missing in our social life,” she says.
Even now with a winter home on the ocean in Florida, Ray often yearns for their home in Wisconsin and its river view. (Continues on page 2.)