Faith has prepared him for the battle, and it is further strengthened by the fight
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Ray Stumpf, by his own admission, had never been a person to talk about his faith journey.
“But God’s not dead; he’s alive — and I knew I should share that,” he said in a talk Nov. 7, at Grace Covenant Church in Little Falls.
Stumpf, an industrial technology teacher at Little Falls Community Middle School, was diagnosed with stage 3B colon cancer following a routine colonoscopy in July 2010. That was followed by surgery and just as a precaution, chemotherapy. When the cancer recurred in 2011 — during chemotherapy — it was found to have metastasized to his liver.
“I’m the oddity. I had a good diagnosis and the doctors felt that the surgery had gotten it all,” he said. “I had thought I would have five to 10 years before a recurrence; it was heartbreaking.”
But Stumpf’s faith had been cemented over the years by mentors and life experiences that were preparing him for what was to come.
“I call this my ‘oddly-wrapped gift,’” he said. “It’s so odd to be planning for the end of my life and to be so calm. It’s got to be faith — it can’t be anything else.”
Stumpf has done a lot of traveling in his life, and he considers this to be another journey, “one that I don’t have to pack for,” he said.
He traces his Morrison County roots back to great-grandparents. He grew up in Little Falls and graduated from high school in 1975.
Although he went to church during his childhood, his faith wasn’t deeply rooted. “My generation took it for granted, based on the kind of growing up we had,” he said.
When he was a high school senior, the drinking age in Minnesota was lowered and he started making poor choices.
One day after school, he was supposed to be riding with friends but he and another friend missed the ride. The two friends who were in the car were killed in an accident north of town.
“By a twist of fate — or divine intervention — Ray and another guy missed that fatal trip,” said Dave Girtz, Middle School media specialist and fellow member of the class of 1975.
“I had survivor guilt and became a ‘doubting Thomas’ for several years,” Stumpf said. “I threw Jesus in the back seat.”
He joined the Navy, spending time as a corpsman and with the Seabees as an underwater diver. In one of his assignments he had daily contact with admirals, generals and congressmen.
“I noticed that their daily routines included Bible reading,” he said. That planted seeds of faith.
Stumpf, who attended First United Church in Little Falls while growing up, but whose dad is Catholic, has been influenced by a variety of faith traditions.
His wife, Barb, was Methodist. Their wedding ceremony was performed by Barb’s youth pastor and a pastor who was a mentor to Ray.
“I was influenced by them, and accepted Christ as my savior,” he said. “Faith is a relationship, and it must be nurtured to grow.”
While moving around for the military, the Stumpfs were members of Episcopal churches in California and Virginia. When they returned to Little Falls after Stumpf retired, they joined First Lutheran.
“When people ask about my church affiliation, I answer that I’m a Christian,” he said.
Stumpf had the support and encouragement of two mentors in his life — Dick Mettie in California and John Rice in Virginia. But even as he led others as an underwater diver, as a Boy Scout leader and as a Sunday school teacher, “I never shared the growth of my faith with anybody,” he said.
It was a Cursillo retreat (an organization which includes Walk to Emmaus and Via de Cristo) that cemented Stumpf’s faith. “That and my mentors prepared me for what is happening now,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been scared about the cancer; I’m surrounded by such a calming peace, because I’ve developed a relationship with Christ.”
Stumpf spoke to a group of youths at Grace Covenant in early October, sharing his faith journey with them. “I’m much more comfortable talking with youth than I am talking to adults,” he said.
He was invited to attend a student-led prayer group at the middle school, where the students prayed for him. “It’s pretty amazing that these kids have a relationship with Jesus at their age,” he said. “For them to take that time and effort is amazing.”
On Oct. 30, he was honored at a community “Celebration of Life,” sponsored by Little Falls Community Schools.
“The gathering provided district staff, community members and students an opportunity to celebrate and commemorate Ray Stumpf, an outstanding educator, family man, colleague and friend,” said Little Falls Superintendent Stephen Jones. “He is a truly unique and talented man who is passionate about his life’s mission of working with and teaching children.”
Stumpf was very pleased with the celebration. “It was wonderful to be able to hug people and tell them how much they have meant to me,” he said.
His wife and daughters, Naomi and Joy, stood beside him. “The line formed while we were greeting the first people and it never went away,” he said. “There were so many current and former students there. Some of my old teachers from Little Falls were there; it was cool that they would take the time to stand in line.”
Much of the planning for the event was done by the Class of 1975. “We have a very unique class,” said Stumpf. “There weren’t really any fringe groups; the whole class just gelled.”
“Everyone got along and watched out for each other and cared for each other,” Girtz said. “Our reunions are still well-attended and our circle of friends has remained close over the past 37 years. Many of the class members have stayed in the area and helped to keep the Little Falls community strong.”
“Ray changed the curriculum of the industrial technology classes, what used to be called ‘shop’ class,” said Jerry Wenzel, who substituted in Stumpf’s classroom on chemo days, and is now the long-term substitute teacher. “He integrated science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) into the curriculum.”
“Ray made his mark on the District by transforming the program,” Girtz said. “It now utilizes STEM skills to get students to think of industrial technology as an integral part of their total middle school experience.”
Stumpf stopped teaching in early November. But he still goes in for the first hour in the morning, as his stamina allows, to get the day going. “We’re trying for the smoothest transition we can do,” he said.
“He is incredibly dedicated and passionate,” Wenzel said. “He is gone now on medical leave, but comes in every morning to teach the first hour, while I do the rest of the day. He’s still passionate even though he’s losing his energy. He’s got limited time and he’s still concerned about the education his kids will get.”
“It wasn’t until Ray’s cancer diagnosis that I got to know him as more than a teacher in my school,” said Middle School Principal Nate Swenson. “It cannot be said enough times that Ray is a shining example for us all on how to live with adversity. He continues to live his life positively and peacefully in the midst of his significant health problems, which selfishly has helped everyone else cope better with their own feelings and emotions.”
The Stumpfs’ middle child and son, Noah, lived 28 days before his death from a heart defect. “We moved his remains around with us, thinking he would be buried with whichever grandparent went first,” Stumpf said. “He will be buried with me. That’s sad — and it’s a joy.”
Stumpf’s father, Kelly, is building an urn box for Stumpf made from a tree that stood in the front yard of the house he grew up in. Kelly is building an urn for Noah’s remains as well, with Ray choosing the designs to be put on the sides and tops of the urns.
“I have had an amazing life,” said Stumpf. “The only thing I feel that’s getting cut short is the opportunity to spend time with my grandchildren.”
“I think the greatest compliment I could give Ray is that if I were ever in a similar situation, I’d hope to handle it as he has — with grace, dignity and continual love for others,” said Swenson.
“I don’t know how he can still be so positive at this stage of his life,” Wenzel said. “His faith increases mine.”
“There have been amazing people through my life who have prepared me for this,” Stumpf said. “If some miracle were to happen or if I go soon — I’m comfortable either way. I’m healed where it matters — spiritually.”
“Some of the students made a Facebook page in my honor,” said Stumpf. “I’m not that amazing man. But, I know an amazing man — Jesus Christ — and I hope you know him too.”