For five decades, Ray Christensen’s impeccable voice painted pictures from Big Ten stadiums for generations of Gophers fans, while they raked leaves or cleaned their garage.
His radio calls from distant basketball arenas added a soundtrack for Minnesota families, as they ran errands, made hot dish and toted children to their own sporting events.
But when word came Monday that Christensen had died at age 92, former co-workers were just as quick to praise the quality of the man behind the microphone.
“I was always overwhelmed by how humble he was,” said Dave Lee, who worked with Christensen at WCCO (830-AM) and replaced him as the Gophers play-by-play announcer in 2001. “The broadcast was never about Ray. I don’t think he had any ego.”
Born in 1924, Raymond P. Christensen graduated from Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis and was a charter member of that school’s Hall of Fame.
After serving in the Army during World War II, he graduated from the university in 1949. Two years later, he began calling Gophers football games for KUOM.
“Heading into that first game, I was very nervous but excited,” Christensen said in a 2004 interview with GopherHole.com. “My friends and family all listened to that first broadcast, and they told me I did a great job. They probably would have told me that regardless of how I did, though, but it was a lot of fun.”
Over the years, Christensen broadcast Twins baseball, Vikings football, Minneapolis Lakers basketball, and golf and hockey, as well as 510 Gophers football games in 50 years and 1,309 Gophers basketball games in 45 years.
Recalling the many fall Saturday afternoons when he listened to Gophers football games, Gov. Mark Dayton said Christensen “made the best wins sound sensational and the worst losses almost bearable.”
Christensen had a stint as program and sports director at WLOL before joining WCCO full-time in 1963. Beyond broadcasting sports, he did news and held a daily music appreciation segment.
Dave Mona, who worked with Christensen at WCCO and on Gophers football broadcasts, remembers some wide-ranging pregame breakfast conversations.
“Ray was so well-rounded in his life,” Mona said. “He knew classical music and history. He didn’t hold it over anybody that he knew that. But if you asked, he could tell you about Ravel and Prokofiev. And that was between conversations about opposing quarterbacks.”
Darrell Thompson, the Gophers’ career rushing leader, joined the football radio broadcast crew in 1998, giving him three years to work with Christensen.
“He was the classiest person I ever met, period,” Thompson said.
Thompson remembers the meticulous notes Christensen prepared for every game. If the opponent had a player with a hard-to-pronounce name, nobody could tell listening to the Gophers broadcast.
“His pronunciation was immaculate,” Thompson said. “We’d be at Michigan State, and they might have a Polynesian player, and the name would just roll off his tongue.”
Christensen’s son, Jim, worked as a statistician on the football broadcasts for 17 years and did basketball for 25 years. The son would notice when teams switched from man-to-man defense into a zone and give a hand signal to the father.
“My dad would always say we were a team,” Jim Christensen said. “How many people get to work side-by-side with their dad for 25 years and say they loved every minute of it?”
Christensen signed off as the voice of the Gophers following the 2000-01 basketball season. He later said, “it was the right decision” to retire when he did, adding, “I went out still at my best.”
The Gophers placed a banner honoring him in Williams Arena and established an athletic scholarship in his name in 2001. He was inducted into the Minnesota Broadcast Hall of Fame in 2002 and is a member of the University of Minnesota Athletics Hall of Fame.
In 2009, when the Gophers opened TCF Bank Stadium, Christensen made a cameo in the broadcast booth, at age 85, calling Minnesota’s first drive of the second half. He spoke of how honored he was, getting the chance to call games at Memorial Stadium, the Metrodome and the new stadium.
Current Gophers play-by-play man Mike Grimm noted how prepared Christensen came, even for that short segment.
“It was like time stood still,” Grimm said. “It was like we were back in the fall of 1988. He could have done all four quarters, and people would have said, ‘He’s right on top of his game.’ ”
In retirement, Christensen hosted tours abroad and recorded more than 100 Talking Books for the Blind. Younger listeners might recognize his voice in radio commercials for Washburn-McReavy Funeral Homes.
Jim Christensen said his father died Sunday following an upper respiratory infection. Ray Christensen had been living in Rosemount at the time of his death.
He is survived by his wife, Ramona; sons Tom and Jim; and a daughter, Sue. Services are pending. Memorials can be sent to either the Communication Center for the Blind, St. Paul; the Danish Center Genealogy Department, Elkhorn, Iowa; or to College of Liberal Arts Scholarships at the University of Minnesota.