Ray Henkel

1931 - 2017

Ray Henkel was born Jan. 28, 1931 on a farm along the Cimarron River about 30 miles west of Tulsa. He died March 11, 2017, at age 86. Ray attended a one-room elementary school, and in 1948 graduated from Kellyville H. S. in a class of 15, earning an A in every class. Ray had a photographic memory, so school work was always easy for him.

Immediately after H.S. graduation in 1948, Ray and his family moved to Arizona to pick cotton. For the next two years, his family followed other laborers, mostly Hispanics, into California and the Northwest to pick fruit, potatoes, vegetables and the like. It was at this time that Ray learned to speak Spanish. Since the family was driving old cars, it was also at this time that he became an excellent mechanic, and for the rest of his life he worked on cars, doing both small and major projects.

He was drafted into the Army in 1950. After basic training, he was sent to the Officer Training School for the Army Corps of Engineers at Ft. Belvoir, VA. There were 21 students in his class, and he was the only one without a college degree or any engineer training, but he graduated 2nd in the class. Upon completion of the course he was commissioned an officer in the Corps of Engineers. He was assigned to Korea, and his unit, the 811th Engineer Battalion, was attached to the 5th Air Force, and he quickly became commander of “A” Company. Ray spent time in Korea and Thailand, mostly locating and building airfields and revetments, and building radar stations on islands off the coast of North Korea. As well, Ray was assigned as the Army Intelligence Officer for his battalion, and solved several major cases (only one remained unsolved). He left the military in 1952 with the rank of Captain.

Ray returned to Arizona to work on cotton farms. With his engineering and organizational skills, he quickly became manager of a large vegetable farm. He earned “very good money,” but eventually decided to attend Arizona State College, starting out part-time. He graduated in 1960 (by then it was ASU) as a geography major, with all “As” except for one “B” (in a class where no one received an “A”).

Ray went to the University of Wisconsin where he completed an M.A. and a Ph.D.   Both degrees were in geography, but he had extensive work in agricultural economics, which greatly helped in his later work, and where most of his interests lay. His dissertation was done in Bolivia on the Amazon side of the Andes, at a time in the mid-1960s when coca production was just beginning. His work was funded by the National Science Foundation, and the title of this work was “The Chapare of Bolivia: A Study of Tropical Agriculture in Transition” (1971). This was the beginning of a lifetime of work on the subject of coca and cocaine, and the tropics in general. He often described many “close calls” with government troops and violent narcotics producers. It was dangerous work, but he developed contacts with the two sides, and luckily managed to survive. He had many stories and slides, and he used both with great effectiveness in classes.

Ray taught at ASU from 1966 to 1995.   He took a leave to teach 2 years in the early 1970s at the U. of Zambia (to help establish their Geography Department), and one year at New Mexico State.   Ray published on all aspects of coca and cocaine. However, all of these publications were in classified government documents without his name on them–as he once explained “I don’t want a bullseye on my back.”  The only publication on cocaine with his name on it was with two co-authors on the use of climate for determining cocaine production (Nature Vol. 361, p. 25).  For many years, during summer months, he worked for various agencies in Latin America on cocaine and varied problems in the tropics (for example, once on road building, where his engineering background came in handy).  He traveled in both high society in cities, and among the poor in the jungles of the Amazon.  He was considered the leading expert on all aspects of cocaine (the growing, processing, transport and distribution), and often was flown to Washington, D.C. for conferences, policy meetings, and for consultations.  All of his work would be considered in the broad area of “applied geography.”

On first meeting him, many underestimated Ray.  He was an “Oakie,” who spoke, dressed, and acted the part.  But not only was he very intelligent, he was exceedingly observant, and quickly able to understand and make connections as to what he was seeing.   He was also–academically and intellectually–a very organized person, and with this trait, he helped many graduate students organize and conceptualize theses and dissertations. He was a humble and quiet person, who never wanted to “stand out” in a crowd. He grew up in a very impoverished family, where everything was always shared, and that background influenced him the rest of his life.

Dr. Henkel contributed to geographic education at Arizona State University in many ways.  He had a true commitment to students.  He was a very compassionate person, who was willing to help any student who wandered into his office.  Ray was always positive, never judgmental, and never had a bad word to say about anyone. He guided 26 MA theses during his career, but he helped many other students at all levels of academic work.  He was also an excellent and very popular teacher.  His classes were always educational and entertaining, and students flocked to them.  He also taught many televised classes that were viewed by many in the community who were not even enrolled.  Ray was involved with the geography honor society (GTU) from the time he returned to ASU to a year or two after he retired.  He organized and led many field trips, held parties and gatherings, and organized an annual picnic that has since evolved into the unit’s annual banquet.  He was liked and respected by all, and will be greatly missed.

Ray is survived by three brothers and numerous nieces and nephews.