Riding with Ray.
For decades, Barbara Ashley did just that, spending countless hours in the car with Ray Burton as they made their way across Burton’s beloved North Country and his sprawling New Hampshire Executive Council District 1.
For a quarter-century, she was the fiscal agent for Burton, a Republican from Bath, who was New Hampshire’s longest-serving executive counselor at the time of his death from cancer on Nov. 12, 2013. He was 74.
Nearly a decade after his death, Burton remains a household name in the North Country and many residents and constituents remember him as a champion for those in his council district.
After years in the works, Ashley’s book about Burton’s life, titled “Riding With Ray,” is nearing completion.
“My book is about a lifetime of knowing Ray since high school, through college, and a shared love of New Hampshire and the North Country, instilled in both of us through our parents,” said Ashley, of Littleton. “As his fiscal agent, we were on the road constantly. After serving as his agent for 25 years, we developed a special bond, both personally and politically, and I became the learner. Ray was one of only two truly bipartisan public servants in New Hampshire.”
(She names the second in her book).
Ashley had a front-row view into the life of Burton that few had.
She wasn’t someone who came to know him as an adult and saw just the public service side of his life.
Ashley attended school with Burton, and while some of her book will be devoted to his public service, she will reveal what he was like growing up.
The idea for the book came at a fund-raiser in Meredith, shortly after Burton’s death.
Ashley had been a speaker at the fund-raisers while Burton was alive, and after his death, she was encouraged by those who also knew him to write a book.
“I thought of all the things about Ray that people don’t really know,” said Ashley. “They know about his public service, they know about his personality, but they don’t know Ray like I did. I was probably the closest person to Ray over all these years, closest to him than anybody outside of the family.”
Their friendship began in the 1950s when Burton entered Woodsville High School.
“He was two years behind me,” said Ashley, who grew up in Woodsville.
In that era, popularity was largely based on being an athlete.
“He was very popular in his class in spite of the fact that he wasn’t an athlete,” said Ashley. “Ray was good at just being a good classmate. He was interested in being elected to the student council and was always interested in governance at an early age. He was very personable, he was very musical, and he had singing talent. He was very popular with his classmates.”
Burton grew up on his parents’ farm in Bath.
“He was a great granger,” said Ashley. “He was a self-taught organist and pianist. In his house for years he had a grand piano and he had an organ. He had them arranged in his huge living room so he could sit between the two of them and play one with his left hand and the other with his right hand all at the same time. It was just one of his talents.”
Burton never made any enemies and just went about his life, she said.
After high school, Ashley entered Plymouth State University.
“I was two years at Plymouth and here comes Ray Burton right behind me again,” she said. “He majored in elementary education and he was well received. He ended up teaching. Both of us were very interested in history and politics, and that came from our families. He was brought up the same way I was. Parents set us a good example.”
PSU offered a course called the History and Government of New Hampshire, and those who loved politics, like Burton and Ashley, took it, regardless of their major, she said.
Burton would go on to teach history and politics at Lyndon State University.
He was first elected to the Executive Council in 1976.
Ashley became Burton’s fiscal agent in the early 1980s after his previous fiscal agent suffered serious injuries in a car accident and had to step down.
She was in Woodsville visiting her mother and ran into Burton at the supermarket.
“Ray was coming out and I was going in and we stopped and said hi,” recalls Ashley. “Then he comes trotting in behind me and told me had lost his fiscal agent and asked me if I would be interested in helping him. I didn’t know anything about being a fiscal agent. He said, ‘It’s really simple. I keep everything on 3-by-5 cards.’”
Her book will also include a roast of Burton in the late 2000s that was put together by former state Rep. Brien Ward, a Republican from Littleton, and drew scores of people and many laughs. Burton had the last word, and threw some friendly jabs of his own.
She began making a book chapter list almost immediately after his death.
While researching, Ashley visited PSU, where all of the items and memorabilia from his political life were moved into an archive from their original place at the museum in Bath.
It’s a trove.
Burton, she said, kept scrapbooks on his entire life.
“He considered himself third in line in his credo,” said Ashley. “Church and faith were number one. The North Country and New Hampshire number two. He chose dedication and service above a personal life. His service to others was his life. His 30-year political life was a profession to Ray. He studied for it, he was a voracious reader, and he learned from the best. There were wonderful people that he was close to who mentored him.”
Ashley was hoping to release “Riding With Ray” several years ago, but it became delayed from her involvement in other projects.
Her goal is to release the book, which will also include many photographs, before the November 2022 elections.
She is currently deciding on a publisher and will let people know where the book is available.
“When I say ‘Riding with Ray,’ he did a lot of work in his car,” said Ashley. “Any time we went anywhere, that phone was always ringing.”
Among those calling Burton on the road were his constituents as well as generations of governors.
“We also had some of the best conversations,” said Ashley. “It is fascinating to put those in the book … He was very pure politically. There were only two true bipartisan public servants in New Hampshire. Ray’s gone and the other is still alive.”