The Birdman Lands in Wilmington
BY Simon Gonzalez
The future skatepark in Ogden received more than an infusion of funds when professional skater Tony Hawk took an interest. It’s also getting hands-on expertise from the biggest name in the world of skateboarding who wants to bring a premier event to the park in honor of Ray Underhill a former pro who called Wilmington home.
Hawk known as The Birdman for his high-flying maneuvers on the board is more than the most famous athlete in the sport. He is also its best ambassador. His schedule is jam-packed with appearances as he spreads the word about skateboarding in the United States and around the world. He has traveled to Afghanistan Cambodia and South Africa to give demonstrations.
In order to give back to the sport that made him famous he established a nonprofit organization in 2002. The Tony Hawk Foundation is primarily focused on helping build skateparks for youth in communities across the country. It is inundated with requests up to 450 a year. Only about 10 percent meet the criteria and get the seal of approval and a $25 000 grant. Even fewer get the personal attention he is giving to this park in Ogden the suburb northeast of Wilmington.
Hawk is personally working with Seattle-based Grindline Skateparks the designer of the under-construction facility inside Ogden Park making sure it is first rate.
“The project itself met all the necessary markers but I took a special interest in trying to design the skatepark so we could have a world-class event on the East Coast ” Hawk says. “I’ve been in direct contact with the designer to make sure the bowl meets the specifications. Usually I have some say in the general design. I get every skatepark plan put in front of me. Never have I been so involved in changing something so drastically. I made it bigger.”
Why the interest from a Californian in a park and event in Wilmington? It’s all because of Ray.
Ray Underhill was a Tennessee native who moved to San Diego in the mid-1980s to become a pro skateboarder. He was skilled enough to join the famous Bones Brigade a team featuring many of the top riders in the sport including Hawk.
The two men became lifelong friends. When they weren’t touring the world together Underhill usually could be found at Hawk’s house working on his tricks with his distinctive ponytail flapping as he grabbed some big air. The two were featured in a 1985 Mountain Dew commercial.
“He was a great skater and a very creative person. He became one of my best friends ” Hawk says. “We enjoyed the same type of humor and music and movies. He and I traveled all over Europe all over the United States New Zealand. It can be tough touring with guys in close proximity. We weren’t in luxury. But we traveled well together.”
Then Underhill’s life was tragically cut short.
He had moved to Wilmington in 1998 with his wife Kerry and 3-year-old son Keaton to lead the marketing efforts at Reggie Barnes’ Eastern Skateboard Supply. His daughter Olivia was born in 2000.
“Ray was from Tennessee and Kerry is from the East Coast ” says Kelly Barnes then married to Reggie and working at Eastern. “He wanted to get everybody back here and settled. He was very much a family man. He was a very good husband and dad and a very good friend.”
The Port City was the perfect fit for the young family. Ray volunteered at Ogden Elementary School which Keaton and Olivia attended. He became involved with the local skateboarding community.
“There’s a huge following of the Bones Brigade team ” Barnes says. “It’s kind of like a cult. He was a very well-known skater. Ray was one of the best vert (vertical) skaters there was. A lot of the people in the skateboarding community looked up to him.”
Then in 2006 Ray was diagnosed with chordoma a rare type of cancer that occurs in the bones of the skull and spine. After battling the disease through surgery and multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy treatments he died on August 1 2008.
“He definitely made an impact on anyone who knew him ” Kerry says. “We were all in shock when he was diagnosed and when he passed. He was a great great man. I was very blessed to be with him for 20 years. I always say to people if there’s anything we’ve learned from Ray’s passing it’s that life is so short and to not take any of our days for granted. He didn’t at all. He lived life to the fullest and fought to live for his family.”
Although he had been away from the pro scene for 10 years he was fondly remembered. An obituary in a skateboard publication summed up his impact and legacy:
“To those of us who knew Ray he’s remembered as the guy we wish we were. His candor his kindness his sense of humor were an example to us all. If everyone in the world were just a little more like Ray what an amazing peaceful place this would be. Skateboarding lost a brother — one who made his mark on his board but who went on to affect us all in far more profound ways for who he was off his skateboard. Quite simply he was the best of us and is tremendously missed.”
Keaton was 13 when his father died; Olivia was 8. Both have special memories of their dad.
“We were super into soccer ” says Keaton now 21 and a lacrosse-playing senior at Emmanuel College in Georgia. “We’d go to Ogden Park and kick around when it was open. We’d go to Hammerheads games.”
Naturally they also skated together.
“It’s something I love to do ” Keaton says. “I’ve been on the board since I was 3 or 4. We’d go skate all across town at different parks whenever we could. He taught me some pretty cool stuff. A bunch of people tell me I have the same style as him. I like hearing that. It’s pretty cool.”
Keaton learned to skate almost as soon as he could walk.
“It used to make me so nervous ” Kerry says. “His dad used to put him on the board in-between his legs when he was little and skate around the neighborhood with him. Ray never pressured him to skate. It was just part of our environment. We hung out with skaters and their kids their families. That’s pretty much what everyone did in their free time.”
Kerry sees a lot of Ray when she watches Keaton on his board.
“I always tell Keaton whenever I see pictures of him skateboarding he holds his hands the same way his dad did ” she says.
Olivia also tried skating but it wasn’t for her.
“Whenever they’d be skating at the park I’d bring my gear and I’d roll around on my butt and call myself a skater ” she says. “But I was never any good.”
Instead she carries on Ray’s legacy in a different way.
“Oddly enough Olivia shares her dad’s love of coffee and ’80s music ” Kerry says. “She has all of her dad’s albums. It’s pretty nice to hear her playing all of his old albums in the house and listening to the music he loved to listen to.”
The ’80s are practically ancient history for 16-year-olds like Olivia. And reviews of music from the decade are decidedly mixed. But Olivia unashamedly owns up to her listening habits — even if she doesn’t completely agree with all of Ray’s musical choices.
“I love it ” she says. “Some of those albums are pretty strange but most of them are good. I love Tears For Fears Roxy Music Duran Duran. There’s too many Olivia Newton-John albums. Way too many.”
Kerry smiles when she hears her children discussing their father knowing that Ray lives on through them.
His legacy also continues through an event called Rad For Ray hosted by Hawk.
“They get some old-school skaters and some new talent and it’s an all-day event ” Kerry says. “They have clinics for kids in the morning. It ends with a pro jam with all the professional skaters competing.”
The first Rad For Ray took place in Raleigh in 2014. It was in the Atlanta area this year with some of the best skaters around participating to show their support for one of their own gone too soon and to let the family know they haven’t forgotten.
“It was a hard thing for Ray to go through and his friends supported him ” Kerry says. They supported me and the kids after Ray passed. It’s a tight-knit amazing loyal community that are family. They look out for each other.”
Hawk hopes to make it an annual event with the next — and every subsequent one — taking place in Ogden. That’s why he’s personally involved in the new skatepark.
“I’ve been looking for a home for it ” Hawk says. “We’ve managed to do two events sometimes against great odds. Now that we have this space I think we’ll get more support. It’s in Ray’s hometown. I’m pretty excited. There are a handful of skateparks with good bowls on the East Coast but this one could be the destination bowl.”
Hawk’s foundation lists $25 000 as the maximum grant it gives toward skatepark projects. That was the amount of the original donation. But Hawk upped it after helping redesign the bowl and in August the New Hanover County Commissioners accepted $51 000.
The county is paying for the bulk of the project having budgeted $265 000. Another $7 000 has come in through online donations. A fundraiser at Eaton Elementary a school located near the entrance to Ogden Park raised $1 338.
Together it should be enough to bring Rad For Ray to Wilmington.
“It will really be good for Wilmington and a great event ” Kerry says. “There are a lot of people who loved Ray. Bringing it back to where he used to live this is bringing it back home.”
Kerry still calls the Wilmington area home. She and her husband Brad Overman live in Hampstead with their daughter — “We have a beautiful little girl named Scarlett ” she says — and Olivia and Keaton when he’s home from college. She runs the Ray Underhill Foundation a nonprofit that primarily benefits people impacted by chordoma.
“There’s not a lot of research done and not a lot of funding ” says Barnes who is on the board. “When you lose a friend that’s like a brother to you you feel helpless. You can’t mend their children’s or their wife’s broken heart. You can’t help your friend’s suffering. But you do what you can do. The thing we can do is honor him by raising money and helping other people and continue honoring him by remembering him as he was — a loving giving person.”
Hawk will come to town to skate at Rad For Ray. Hawk has made numerous trips to Wilmington over the years to visit his friend and now to keep in touch with Kerry and the kids who call him uncle.
“He makes good cinnamon rolls ” Kerry laughs. “He has been a fixture in their lives since day one. We’re very blessed to have him. First and foremost he’s family to us.”
Naturally the visits include skating. Keaton remembers a trip to the skatepark at Greenfield Lake.
“It was us and about three other people at the park ” Keaton says. “Within 10 minutes there was probably 75-100 people and news vans trying to get there. It was hectic.”
That’s the kind of star power Hawk brings to the new park. With his hands-on involvement and a premier event featuring The Birdman himself put on to honor the memory of a dear friend Kerry hopes the skatepark might even been named after Ray.
“Hopefully we’re going to get that to happen ” Barnes says. “He was committed to Ogden; his kids went to school there. He did a lot in the life he had. He raised two beautiful children and was a faithful loving husband. He was a great role model. Ray would have been the last person to want the park named after him. He was one of the most humble low-key people. But if he knew it was going to help others and motivate kids to be healthy he’d be OK with it.”