It is with a very heavy heart that I write this message to our health and human services community. This past Saturday, August 19, 2023, we lost one of our most honored and loved colleagues. Dr. Ray de Leon, director of the School of Kinesiology, had a heart attack and could not be resuscitated.
In these moments, words sound hollow. Saying he was an outstanding leader, an exceptional educator, committed to our students, and a dedicated family man would normally end the sentence and a tribute. However, more needs to be written because he was an incredibly rare and exceptional person. He was and will remain one of the kindest, most humble, and most thoughtful individuals I have ever met. Working with Ray over the years taught me that you can achieve a great deal by just remaining calm. He never once criticized or had a negative word to say about anyone. He looked for the best in everyone and sought the creative blend when conflict occurred. We spent many hours talking about his love of the School of Kinesiology, faculty, students, and life. Beyond work, we saw life through the same lens, shared stories about our families, laughed, and always found time to discuss never-ending home projects.
Ray was the quintessential scholar and was awarded the University Outstanding Professor Award in 2018. His resume is robust with articles and federal grants, and he was recruited to teach at R-1 institutions earlier in his career. When I asked why he did not accept an offer at UCLA, he smiled and said, “I am at Cal State LA because of the students we serve. I believe in our mission.” Dr. Stefan Keslacy added that “Ray was a brilliant scientist and was able to break down complex concepts for the students. He came from R-1 research institute training but never gave up on our students to reach that level. He believed in our students even when they didn't believe in themselves. He epitomized the spirit of upward mobility.”
As director of the School of Kinesiology, Ray worked closely with the faculty and staff, who appreciated his “down to earth” approach and constantly challenged them to do better. The interim director, Christine Dy, stated, "Ray was my mentor since my first day at Cal State LA, which was 15 years ago. His spirit will remain my guide.”
Ray was the founder and principal investigator of the Spinal Plasticity Laboratory, where he researched the physiological mechanisms of activity-dependent spinal plasticity to return functional movement to individuals after a paralyzing injury. He also created the University's Mobility Center. The Center is a service-learning therapeutic exercise facility that provides rehabilitation services to the local community and hands-on training for kinesiology students. Most recently, Ray received funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to fund multi-disciplinary research projects for undergraduate students throughout the college (SPROUT). The financial award is available to faculty and students in all disciplines, including those in the popular Rehabilitation and therapeutic Exercise option, which Ray developed.
Ray’s wife, Christine, commented, “Ray had a special calling for Cal State LA. He felt service to the community was his highest contribution and legacy. He was very proud of his relationships with his colleagues and friends. He did all that he could to leave the department in good hands. We want to thank the Cal State LA community for years of meaningful work that gave him enormous meaning, satisfaction, and love. He loved each and every one of his colleagues and looked out for their welfare. This is what we talked about during our daily walks.”
Ray is survived by his wife, Christine Navarro, MD, and two sons, David and Josh. Rest in peace, Ray. They broke the mold when you were born, and we will miss you. We will let everyone know when and where services will be held.