February 10, 2010
They met skiing at Powder Ridge. Ray was months out of Maloney High in Meriden, soon to head for basic training in the National Guard. Paula was a Newington girl, still in high school.
"What did I think?" Paula Dobratz said. "I think I kissed him in the parking lot."
Ray Dobratz was tall, good looking and, sure, Paula liked that part. He was good to his mom, Maureen, and his sister, Marie. Paula liked that even more. The first kiss at Powder Ridge? The date rolled happily through her lips early Tuesday evening.
"Dec. 7, 1969," Paula said.
Ray Dobratz was one of those guys who set the clock 45 minutes ahead, so Paula knows what time he got up Sunday at their Old Saybrook home. She did the subtraction when the alarm went off again Monday, the morning after the horrific explosion at the Kleen Energy Systems power plant in Middletown claimed five men, including her own.
The clock read 4:13. On the last day of his life, Ray Dobratz, 58, arose at 3:28 a.m.
"I always wake up when he leaves," Paula said. "He always kisses me goodbye. As we yell back and forth as he goes through the door, I always say the same thing."
Paula Dobratz will not have to search the rest of her life for the five words she said to her man after that last kiss, 40 years and two months after their first. "It was, 'Be careful. I love you.'"
The natural gas explosion that rocked the Connecticut landscape grabbed our state by the throat, forcing us to stare into the eyes of tragedy on a day ordinarily reserved for Super Bowl parties. The heartache, the reasons for this tragedy, the economic impact, it is a massive web to be untangled for months, maybe years. This story is only one strand of that web, yet for those who were touched by Ray Dobratz's life it is a story built to endure. Gov. Rell has declared today a state day of mourning to honor the dead, and Old Saybrook First Selectman Michael Pace said something especially striking: You want to honor Ray Dobratz? Volunteer.
Raymond Elmer Dobratz. What a strong name. What a great union name. Of course, he was 6 feet 4, 240 pounds. Of course, he had a big mustache. Of course, he belonged to the Connecticut Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 777. Men like Ray Dobratz build America. Yet to know Ray Dobratz was to know he also was the kind of man who shapes America. Yes, he worked hard, but in his spare time he made sure young people could play hard, too.
"Except for pipefitting, everything he did was volunteer," his son Erik said. "Never took a dime."
After moving to Old Saybrook he served nearly 15 years on the town's parks and recreation commission and on the police commission for a decade more. Ray didn't know a thing about soccer when he signed up the boys to play.
Paula begged, no, don't do it. Sure enough, he came back with a team. He would coach baseball. He would coach basketball. He would coach football. He'd coach two and three teams at a time, running all over the place. In all, he coached 30 to 40 teams. During youth football Sundays, Paula would operate the concession stand. They'd show up at 9 a.m. and would still be cleaning up at 6 p.m. They bought a cargo van and took the players to away games.
"Ray was always working, so he was never at the meetings when they picked the kids for baseball," Paula said. "He had our kids and an assistant coach would have his. But we'd look at the rest of the list they gave him and go, 'Oh, they aren't really athletic.' Still, Ray would win. The kids loved him. He didn't yell. He never cared so much about winning, and I think that's why he won."
In the late '80s, football was canceled at Old Saybrook High. Erik was in the eighth grade. There was no feeder program. What did Ray do? He and three buddies started a town youth league. By the time Erik was a senior, football was re-introduced to the school.
"When I was a freshman the baseball coach said in passing we didn't have a batting cage," Erik said. "My dad took a bunch of pipe from work and made the first permanent cage for the school."
The stories go on and on and they go beyond sports, He stood tall, a lone voice fighting to stop four police officers from being laid off. Paula is proud of his fight. They eventually were rehired. He helped out at Halloween parties and Winter Carnivals. He served on the Democratic town committee.
"I know he was a terrific athlete because of what a home run hitter he was in adult softball," Erik said, "but I also knew he felt a little cheated about not being able to play in high school. I think he lived through us a little."
Remember that first kiss? Ray was only 16 when his own dad died. To support his mom and his sister, he worked overnight at a gas station and went to school in the morning.
"I've gotten e-mails from people I haven't talked to in 20 years," Erik said. "How my dad coached them and helped navigate life."
Tears filled Erik's voice. The longtime sports producer at WTNH, Channel 8, Erik is a familiar face, a good man, on our state's sports scene. One of the coolest things about Ray Dobratz is his three sons. Dave became a pipefitter. Matt became a commercial conch fisherman. Erik got involved in sports. Ray's passions became his legacy.
"I'd call him at halftime from Gampel," Erik said. "He couldn't believe I got paid to watch a basketball game. He was in such a tough business. You don't work, you don't get paid. Guys get so beat up physically.
"I always teased my dad he overused me as a pitcher like Billy Martin. Well, he had a couple heart surgeries. He smoked. We baptized my son [Keegan] two Sundays ago. I was on him, 'I want you to stick around for a while. I want you to have a chance to ruin my son's arm like you ruined mine."
Ray and Erik talked on the phone Saturday and Ray told him, "'We have a big blow tomorrow.' That's their term [for gas purge]. He said this was the best group of guys he ever worked with."
There was talk of retirement, but Paula has her doubts. He so loved what he did. This job had pushed him 12 hours a day, seven days a week, but Ray had taken Jan. 31 off for the baptism. It was the last time Erik saw his dad, and the family was together. He so wishes the baptism were scheduled for Feb. 7.
There is a flip side to fate, of course. Unsure if he wanted to continue as a pipefitter, Dave had worked the same construction site until a few weeks ago. He could have been there Sunday.
"I wish I was," Dave said. "My dad was my best friend."
"Thank God he wasn't," Paula said. "I could have lost two. Ray has left me a legacy of three sons, five grandchildren and so many wonderful memories."
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