Emma Ray Riggs McKay (1877–1970)
Emma Ray Riggs was born 23 June 1877 in Salt Lake City, Utah. At her birth, her father declared her a “ray of sunshine” because she was the first daughter to enter the family of four sons. Ray, as she became known, had a fine contralto voice and often sang with her brothers. Under the tutelage of her mother, she spent hours practicing the family piano, which was one of three grand pianos brought across the American plains by her pioneer grandfather, John R. Robbins.
Ray attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music as a piano performance major before returning to Utah to study in the University of Utah Department of Music. Ray's parents, Emma Louise Robbins and Obadiah H. Riggs, both taught at the University. In 1898, the University of Utah awarded degrees to six students--one of whom was Emma Ray Riggs.
After graduation, Ray accepted a teaching position at the Madison Elementary School in Ogden, Utah, and on an autumn day in Ogden’s Lester Park, a young David O. McKay proposed marriage. Ray had first met David when he and his brother Thomas came from Huntsville, Utah to rent rooms from Ray's mother while they attended the University of Utah. Ray and David were married 2 January 1901. Seven children were born to the couple: David Lawrence, Llewelyn, Louise Jeanette, Royle (who died before reaching three years of age), Emma Rae, Edward, and Robert. Ray insisted that all of the children learn to play the piano. Lawrence also played the violin, and Llewelyn played the clarinet. Louise became an accomplished pianist and accompanied her brothers in performing as a popular trio. The children were shepherded to musical programs at the University and in the community, and Ray was especially fond of gathering them around the piano to sing and play their instruments while she accompanied. An excellent accompanist, she could transpose at sight.
Following in their parents’ footsteps all seven children, and their spouses, graduated from the University of Utah.
Only five years after their wedding, David O. McKay was ordained an Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was called to travel extensively leaving Ray with most of the responsibilities of their home and family. He later became President of the Church. After the children had grown, Ray traveled the world with him, speaking to thousands of people in many countries. She especially inspired young people who often wrote to her for advice, which was freely given.
During her full and accomplished life, Ray received, among other awards, the Utah Mother of the Year Award; an honorary doctorate in humanities from the Utah Agricultural College; the Distinguished Achievement Award given by Ricks College; the Outstanding Woman Award given by Brigham Young University; the Eternal Quest of Womanhood Award given by Utah State University; and a special tribute given by 5000 female students at the University of Utah.
Ray died 14 November 1970 at age 93, ten months after the death of her husband. Her legacy includes 22 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.
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