Rino Ray Johnson was born on Jan. 8, 1932, in Lindale, Alta., the son of two livestock farmers. As a boy, he liked to help out on the family farm, but he left home at 17 to work as a logger in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. At about five foot eight, he didn’t have a large build for a forestry worker, but he was extremely strong, energetic and good with his hands, especially at fixing things and carpentry, which he taught himself by taking things apart and tinkering.
At 21, Ray met his wife, Marion, when both were working at the Babine Lake logging camp in northwest B.C. She was the camp cook, and he felled trees and drove the skidder. They both loved the ruggedness of the West Coast, camping, and going to garage sales. Moving to Lavington, B.C., Ray and Marion had six children: Marlene, Colleen, Barbara, Patrick, Laurie and Bonnie. He continued to log, and built a wooden house for his growing family. It was a four-bedroom home with a shed out back to house Ray’s prized collection of tools. The whole family dug the foundation and hammered in floorboards together.
In 1965, they moved to Enderby, about an hour’s drive away, where the couple set up a store called Ray’s, selling workwear and casual clothes to the surrounding logging and milling community. They didn’t have a lot of money, but Ray liked to make what they needed, and even made his children a wooden toy pistol, saw, and hammer. “He used to carve tools for us kids out of the branches,” says his daughter Laurie Bowie. In 1974, the Johnsons sold their store and went to northern California, living on their savings in a trailer. When funds were low, Ray would buy used furniture and fix it up, although he never charged much and it was always a passion as much as a job.
Moving to Calgary in 1980, Ray and Marion settled at the Greenwood Village Mobile Home Park. In the yard was Ray’s workbench, where he would tinker, and his shed, where he would store his tools. He was very “particular” about how these were kept, says his grandson Tracy Johnson. Hammers, saw blades and pliers hung from the walls; screws and nails were ordered and kept in jars. Ray worked as a janitor in the Calgary Christian Centre, then later as a superintendent at the Glenmore Christian Academy. He and Marion set up their second store, called Raymar’s, in 1991, which sold tools and furniture that he had spruced up after finding items in garage or estate sales. “He would take things and bring them back to life,” says Mike Mooney, a close friend and an antique dealer.
The couple loved to load up their trailer and travel down to the U.S. Every summer, they drove south along the Oregon coast to Mexico, stopping off at Disneyland along the way. On the journeys, they would listen to country music, especially people like Hank Snow or Johnny Cash. Ray would play the harmonica and Marion the guitar. “He wasn’t a good singer, but he could carry a tune, and we didn’t care,” says Laurie.
In 1996, the couple sold their store and started working Sundays at Calgary’s Hillhurst-Sunnyside flea market, where they also sold tools and refinished furniture. Ray was known as the ToolGuy because of his enormous collection, which he would carry to the market in large, steel boxes in his pickup. Generous and trusting, he would let people borrow anything they needed, whether it was a drill or a nail gun. Customers could buy goods and pay later, and he gave discounts to those who were hard up.
In July 2000, Marion found out she had lung cancer. That Christmas, Ray also discovered he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After six months of chemotherapy, Ray was cancer-free. Marion wasn’t so lucky—one of her lungs was removed, but the cancer spread to her liver and she died a year later. For Ray it was a difficult loss, since they were not only husband and wife but “best friends,” says his daughter Bonnie Gillard. After Marion’s death, the market, where they used to sit at their stall together, took on a more important role in Ray’s life. It only opened on Sundays, so at midnight, he would arrive and sleep in his truck until the doors opened at 6.30 a.m. The rest of the week, Ray would scour the local papers, and buy tools and used furniture to sell.
A few weeks ago, Ray answered an ad to buy a tool collection. On Jan. 31, his bruised body was found in an industrial area in Calgary. Later that week, a man and a woman were arrested, carrying his credit cards and driving his stolen truck. Police allege the pair, who are married, lured Ray to their home to rob and beat him to death. His friends from the flea market paid their tributes by laying out flowers and a condolence book on the table where his tools were once displayed.