EAST MANATEE -- For decades, Peter Cole Ray passed along his love and passion for rare and exotic fruits to countless thousands.
He helped introduce a yen for green mulberry, lychee, mango, guava, passion fruit and more to folks who were likely raised on apples and oranges. His vehicle was through the Manatee Rare Fruit Council's annual tree sale at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
The sales attracted long lines of avid gardeners who arrived early and surged into the convention center with a zeal normally reserved for Black Friday shopping.
Cole, 83, who died at his Parrish home Nov. 23 surrounded by his family, was more than the former chairman of an annual tree sale.
"He was a pioneer," said his son, James Milton Ray.
"Dad was a pioneer in politics, science and agriculture," James Ray said.
Pete Cole met his future wife, Beth Cooper, while they worked at Cape Canaveral. He was an aeronautical engineer designing tracking systems. She was a mathematician. They were married for 54 years.
He was part of the team that designed the tracking system for the first U.S. manned space missions, Beth Ray said this week.
Ray was also a real estate investor, a career he started after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Miami Law School. He continued working as a real estate investor the rest of his life. He helped people who could not qualify for a bank loan ultimately achieve their goal of owning a home.
A long-time member of the Rare Fruit Council, he filled his Parrish property, previously used as pasture, with fruit trees. He shared his expertise around the state, and notably in Bradenton, through development of the Palma Sola Botanical Park.
"He was such a gentle and kind man. He was highly regarded," said family friend Mary Ann Early. "Every year, I would put out 20 to 25 rare fruit signs for Pete."
His son, James, also had high praise for his father.
"He was the greatest friend and the greatest dad I could ever ask for," James Ray said.
Ray was born July 4, 1931, in Miami.
In addition to his wife, Elizabeth (Beth), he is survived by three sons, James Milton, John Cooper and Thomas Clifford.
A memorial service will be held in January. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to SmileTrain.org or your favorite charity.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter@jajones1.