Photo by Kyle Paup
Honored alumnus discusses lasting impressions of high school
October 29, 2015
Distinguished Alumni Award winner Ray Stejskal, also known as Ramblin’ Ray Stevens on US99.5, relived the school’s diverse community and welcoming atmosphere during a visit to the school that has changed greatly since his time within its walls.
Before receiving the award, Stejskal sat in front of a crowd of students in the auditorium with head of student activities Marc Wolfe to talk about his experiences at West Chicago.
“When I got this I was like ‘why me? You’ve got to be kidding me’ because I never would have expected when I was your guys’ age sitting and looking up at a guy like me that I would ever win an award at my high school for something that I accomplished,” Stejskal said.
Stejskal has maintained relationships since his days as a student.
“The coolest thing that I got from West Chicago and being from here is the diversity of the people I grew up with. I’ve had friends that were Hispanic since I was born, and you hear people talk about this group and that group, but I grew up in a town where it was so diverse and we were just like family. I’ve kept these relationships all of my life,” Stejskal said.
The opinions others may have about the school do not always match the true nature of what West Chicago offers.
“I think sometimes we’re thought of as the community that doesn’t have what the other communities do, but once you’re in it you understand it. You know that we’ve got a lot more than the other people do,” Stejskal said.
Many changes have occurred to the school since the last time he has been here.
“It’s interesting even being here in this auditorium. I don’t recall it being this nice when I was here,” Stejskal said. “But it’s neat, it just comes across as a very nice place. I’ve talked to people that have moved their families through various communities so they could come to West Chicago Community High School, and that’s what I like about this town. I think you’re doing a good job, and I think that has to do with the students.”
Stejskal believes that relationships made in high school will in one way or another remain during the rest of the student’s life.
“It’s funny how you may take these people in your classroom. You may think that some of them are just your classmates, but you’re going to find it funny how down the road they’re your friends and your community, and no matter where you go in this world, and I’ve been all over, that it always comes back to where you were born and raised,” Stejskal said.
When being asked how his teachers would describe him, Stejskal assumed that the first word they would use would be talkative.
“Probably borderline out of control. I always liked to talk, and when I was at Benjamin I was probably in the principal’s office more than I was in the classroom. I think back in the day if somebody had a talent besides being able to sit down and try to figure out trigonometry, my talent was being able to bring people together and speak and have great one-on-one conversations. Back then it was seen as being disruptive. When I got to West Chicago High School I met teachers that turned that into a positive, and all of a sudden instead of disrupting the room, now I’m the guy that’s running the pep rally, that’s doing the announcements, and that’s basically a cheerleader for the school,” Stejskal, who accepted the alumni award on Oct. 1, said.
When asked how he would describe himself, the thing Stejskal said he valued the most and what helped define him the most was his children.
“I would describe myself as a great dad, as a loyal friend, and an all around good guy. I’d also say that you could describe me as a guy that doesn’t take anybody’s (explicit). I think that’s important. I want everybody to know that while I want you to be good people in the world, I also want you to stand up for yourself in what you believe in,” Stejskal said.
Despite finding success in his later years, Stejskal was unsure of the path he wanted to take while he was a student.
“I didn’t have an idea of what I wanted to do when I was at West Chicago. I wanted to have fun while I was here, I wanted to date Marsha Evans, which never happened, but I didn’t have a clear cut vision of what I wanted to be,” Stejskal said. “I knew people from WeGo from the time they were freshmen who knew they were going to be an accountant or a doctor or whatever. It always bummed me out that they all knew exactly what they were going to do.”
Stejskal’s teachers encouraged him by pushing him towards the right career choice.
“The teachers that were here encouraged me, for example in speech class my teacher, Mrs. Crawford, said, ‘hey, you’ve got something when you stand up in front of this class, you light up and you can talk about nothing forever’ and little did I know at the time that she was giving me a little insight on what I eventually would do,” Stejskal said.
Although Stejskal can work with any music, his heart belongs to country. This connection also began during his time at West Chicago.
“Country is what I do, and it really started in swimming class in West Chicago because Mr. Johnson always played country music, and with your head under the water you’d always come up and you’d hear his music,” Stejskal said.
Looking back, Stejskal would not make many changes to his high school life.
“I should have paid more attention in school. But I don’t think I would do anything different to be honest. I think I was always a good kid to my mom and dad. I knew that even if I was going to do something that would get me in trouble, I knew that I was never going to do anything that broke my mom’s heart or make my dad mad because they worked too hard for me and I respected that. I don’t see color, I don’t see economy, I just see a bunch of people trying to get through this crazy life, so let’s have some fun while we’re doing it,” Stejskal said.
Considering students currently in high school, Stejskal wishes for them to have more fun.
“I think that 17 year olds have too much pressure. I think you guys need to lighten up and have some more fun. I just don’t understand it. I always want to make sure (my-17-year-old son) knows that I don’t care whether he wins or loses, I just don’t. I want him to be happy in everything he does. I want him to laugh, I want him to goof, I want him to get a traffic ticket, I want him to be in trouble, because I want him to have that experience. I want him to know that when he comes home at night that I will back him up no matter what,” Stejskal said.
Although fun is important, safety must be accounted for too.
“I want you guys to be careful with the stuff that you do because it’s a crazy world out there. I want you to have fun, but I want you to be careful,” Stejskal said.
Having more confidence is another piece of advice Stejskal would give to students.
“I want you guys to love yourselves and be okay with it. I want you to be confident. If you’re confident in yourself and who you are and you don’t sell yourself out to anybody else or be what anyone else thinks you should be, then you’ll always be successful. If you always be true to yourself then you’ll never have to tell a lie. I think honesty gets lost these days,” Stejskal said.
Chapter 2 of the Distinguished Alumni Story
Moving from school to radio
After a couple attempts at college, a few cases of luck, and plenty of shenanigans along the way, West Chicago alumni Ray Stejskal currently takes on the persona of Ramblin’ Ray Stevens on US99.5.
Stejskal is the winner of the school’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Before accepting the award, he discussed his life after high school and how he got to where he is now in a presentation in front of students.
Unlike his ‘golden child’ twin sister, Stejskal goofed off a bit in school. But with the help of his parents’ influence, he was able to attend Arizona State College.
“I was there for three months. I didn’t graduate at 3 months, but I had a good time while I was there. I had a Jeep there with me for the first three weeks because in the third week I thought I could make it across the river, so I sunk my Jeep and it went floating down the river. I’ll never forget that moment, thinking ‘what am I gonna tell my parents?’” Stejskal said.
With his parents no longer approving of his actions, Stejskal came back to Illinois and attended College of DuPage.
Around 1985, Stejskal had his first experience as an entertainer when attending a party at a hotel.
“The deejay that’s supposed to run the party doesn’t show up, and I talked to the guy who was the hotel manager who says ‘we’ve got a problem because we have 500 people here that are going to go nuts unless we get the party started.’ So I said ‘give me the mic and I’ll take care of your parties. I did pep rallies when I was over at West Chicago, I can handle it.’ I didn’t know what I was doing, but they liked what I did,” Stejskal said. “When I got home my mother looked at me and said ‘I think you need to be in entertainment’.”
As if by fate, an unexpected positive response to a strange request led him to working on the radio.
While attending a parade, a man from the 107.9 radio station came up to Stejskal and said that he needed a car for the parade. Stejskal responded saying that as a coincidence, he needed a job on the radio and proposed a deal to lend his car for the parade in exchange for a chance on air. To Stejskal’s surprise, the deal was accepted and he has been on the radio ever since.
Stejskal works for US 99.5 and has been with the station for 25 years ever since he was given the opportunity to stop being a ‘big fish in a little pond’ at a bar night hosted by the station.
“Once you sit in an air conditioned studio on a 100 degree day, you understand that this is probably something you want to do. I knew that first time I was on it that I could do it, there was never a doubt in my mind,” Stejskal said.
Despite only having positive comments about the station, Stejskal anticipates moving on at some point.
“It’s the jewel of country radio stations, but I’ll put a cap on how long I’ll be there. There will be other things that I’ll want to do, but this has been such a cool ride and it’s hard to walk away from it,” Stejskal said.
Connecting to the audience is an important part of being on the radio.
“Radio is not talking to a million people. I have a million listeners but we’re talking to one person, and it’s always a connection of community and that one person and helping each other out. I think by the way our radio station runs, by the way that we give back and the way that we help each other out is the reason we’ve been fortunate enough to be at the top of the heap for so long,” Stejskal said.
By connecting to the audience, an important relationship can be formed.
“It’s making connections, one person at a time. That’s what it’s about. I always get a kick out of all the people that have a million twitter followers, and they’re only following two people. I feel like if somebody’s got a connection with you and they want to share it, you have to share it with them.If you can do that with them, make somebody’s day, that’s what will help you have that relationship,” Stejskal said.
It is not possible to answer every request, but Stejskal does his best to help out as many people as he can.
A significant part in Stejskal’s contributions to the community is helping those affected by cancer.
“If you’re healthy then thank your lucky stars. I hate cancer. It’s unbelievable how I’ve been touched by cancer through what I do and it is probably why (I’ve received the alumni award). It wasn’t because I was a great student, it’s not because I’m a great human being. I have flaws just like everybody else. I’m trying to raise good kids and make a living, but what I do is I give back,” Stejskal said.
Stejskal has made many efforts to try to end cancer.
“I’ve raised personally $28 million for the St. Jude Children’s Hospital and I can’t tell you how many people that I’ve met, that have died, and I’m sick of seeing it. So my legacy won’t be that I gave away concert tickets, it won’t be that I was given the Distinguished Alumni Award by West Chicago High School, although I appreciate it, it will be that we did everything we did and everything that we could to stop childhood cancer,” Stejskal said.
A specific example that Stejskal holds close to him is a call that he arranged for a 12-year-old girl named Emily who was stricken with cancer.
“She was very sick, very cute, and full of life. Her deal was that she wanted to meet Taylor Swift,” Stejskal said.
Stejskal knew Swift since she was 13 and had an old phone number of hers that had never been changed.
“I text Taylor Swift and say ‘if you get a chance, hit me back’. A couple minutes later I get written back from a blocked number. So I’m talking to her and I say to her ‘listen, I don’t know what you possibly can do. To be honest I don’t know if this little girl is going to make it by the time your tour gets to Chicago.’ Somehow, I’m not sure if it was my call that actually did it or not, but she ended up calling her and skyping her and sending her tickets to her show,” Stejskal said.
Stejskal encourages giving back what you obtain in life to help others.
“I think that if you can take four hours out of your week, which isn’t a lot, to give back then why wouldn’t you do it?” Stejskal said. “I’ve ridden my bicycle 400 miles in four days from Chicago to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for ovarian cancer, I’ve run a relay with six other people from Madison to Milwaukee to Chicago for breast cancer, we try to stay involved not only by just doing fundraisers but by participating and doing stuff for the community.”
Being able to give back to the community by doing what he does gives Stejskal pride in his work.
“It’s just odd to me that you can have such an impact on somebody just because you get up in the morning and goof around. What I’m doing is not rocket science. Trust me when I tell you that your parents are all working harder than I am,” Stejskal said.