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Ray Kneer: A Life in Motion

Ray Kneer poses in front of some of the stone walls he hand built near his home. He's holding an aerial view of Elmcrest circa 1957, when Ray was a youth resident. His print shop friends produced the image as a gift and his wife framed it.

Ray Kneer came to Elmcrest in 1943 as an infant. He left in 1961 as an adult. Today, at 79, he can look back on a lifetime of achievements, but none is more important than this: He’s found hope.

Hope is embodied in the maxim Ray lives by: “If you can move it an inch, you can move it a mile.”

Physical movement – playing, running, hiking, working – has always helped Ray cope with the challenges he has faced. Over the past 24 years, Ray has applied his maxim literally to the large stones he has found while hiking near his hillside home in Cincinnatus, N.Y.

Ray estimates he has unearthed and hauled nearly 26,000 wheelbarrow loads of those stones to his yard. There, one by one, he has lifted each stone into place to build sturdy structures - a ¼-mile wall that almost encloses his lot, a 10-foot tower, three giant circular pyramids and a large enclosed fire pit.

The work brings him joy.

“See that pile of stones over there?” he says, pointing to a recently gathered load. “It gives me a rush just thinking that I’m going to start working on that pretty soon. That’s the fun part. Creating something is fun.”

The work – averaging about 90 minutes a day – is also a daily affirmation of hope, he says.

“If you don’t try, that stone’s going to stay in the ground and it will never be in a wall,” Ray says. “Any stone that you can move an inch can get into a wall.”

Ray wishes he had more hope as a child growing up at Elmcrest. Without parents, he felt vulnerable. Just hearing the word “mother” would make him cry. He recalls lying in bed at night, counting the number of times he had cried that day.

“I was quite sad,” he says. “Movement seemed to be my escape from sadness. Just constantly moving, playing. If you’re worried about hitting a ball, you’re probably not worried about how you feel, you know?”

Games, sports and other activities were a constant at Elmcrest, he says. In the summers, he and his friends played outside all day, every day, pausing only for meals and thunderstorms. He fondly remembers a three-day event called “Beans or Steak” in which the entire campus – boys, girls and staff – were divided into two teams that competed in activity after activity.

“At the end of the three days, they would tally up the scores, and the winners got steak, which basically was hamburgers, I think, and the losers got (only) beans,” he says. “It was a big deal. That was really fun.”

He and his friends also developed their own games, including “tree tag,” which was played in the branches of a grove of maple trees on campus

“I loved it,” he says. “Just running, just unorganized activity. As long as you were moving, it seemed alright with me.”

At the time, Elmcrest children attended local schools, where they were viewed as “tough kids,” Ray says. Few neighborhood children would venture onto campus to play with them. At Nottingham High School, though, Ray’s athleticism earned him spots on the track and football teams, and that led to friendships.

Ray Kneer poses with a 10-foot pedestal and some of the walls he built by hand. In a 2020 article published in the Cortland Standard, Ray said both he and his wall are "a work in progress."

Tony Paskevich remembers Ray as “a great athlete and a very good friend.” While their football teammates enjoyed going to parties, Tony and Ray were “loners,” Tony says. He remembers driving Ray to Butternut Creek where they would have fun building makeshift dams out of large stones.

Ray liked visiting Tony’s house after school, before football practice.

“He seemed to have it all,” Ray says. “Popular, good athlete, came from great parents, had siblings, everybody liked him, pretty good dresser. He had a bike and his own room. I never had my own room.”

Without parents or a home of his own, Ray couldn’t imagine a middle-class life for himself.

While he couldn’t see his own potential, his track coach and the staff at Elmcrest did. When they raised enough money to send him to Cortland College, he wasn’t prepared. On his own for the first time, he faltered at Cortland and dropped out after the first term. He joined the Navy, where he served for four years. Returning to Cortland, he again enrolled in college, but again, he dropped out.

“It bothers me to think about my coach and the director at Elmcrest and people who believed in me,” Ray says. “I just let them down.”

Again, Ray found comfort in movement. He enjoyed working with his hands, so he took a job in a factory making tennis racquets. He was later elected president of his 600-employee union. He later worked as a printer for a local school district.

When Ray wasn’t working or with his family, he was hiking. He has hiked extensively throughout the Adirondacks, where he has a rustic cottage. He also took up woodworking. He has crafted more than 100 ornate walking sticks and dozens of plaques commemorating his favorite treks.

In his mid-30s, Ray started running competitively. By his early 50s, he had won numerous national championships in long-distance running for his age group. He has so many running medals he decided to fashion some of them into wind chimes. He still runs several miles most days.

Ray turned some of his many masters running medals into windchimes.

Along the way, he met his wife, Patti, who also ran competitively for a time. They had a daughter and adopted a son. They now have a granddaughter and two great granddaughters.

A TV show that featured the rustic landscape of England’s Yorkshire Dales inspired him to start building stone walls. His lifelong reliance on movement kept him going.

 “This is an extension of my playing sports,” he says of the walls. “In fact, I didn’t think of it before, but this might just be the Elmcrest in me. The wall. Maybe that was the impetus. Maybe this was always in me, the wall or something like this was always in me. I think that was it.”

Although he never intended to build so much, he’s proud of what he’s accomplished. Because each stone is locked in place by the weight of the stones above it, it never requires repair.

“It’s solid,” he says. “I hope it lasts for 100 years.”

Ray realizes that some might look on his avocation as a “little bit of madness.” He doesn’t mind.

“We’re all crazy in some way,” he says. “You look out on society and you think everybody’s sailing along? Nah, nah. Everybody’s in rough waters. Anyone could drown at any time. Your boat could go over. It took a long time for me to realize that.”

Ray says he won’t continue adding to his walls forever, but no matter when he stops, he’ll be content.

“I never expected as a kid to have this, so getting this is satisfying,” he says. “I have a family. I have a place to live. I have health. I don’t have any future plans other than to be here. This is enough for me. I’m satisfied and happy.”