Leading the way: Tour guide brings Charleston history to light
It’s hard to imagine a single piece of Charleston’s history that has escaped Alfred Ray’s memory.
On the walking tour he guides on a crisp November morning, Ray recites events from the 18th century like they were yesterday’s news. He doesn’t pause or stumble over his words. He’s trying earnestly to fill every moment with facts about the city he knows and loves.
To Ray, Charleston always has been the best city in the world.
He has been a tour guide in Charleston since 1979, when he was a sophomore at the College of Charleston. Today, he’s president of the Charleston Tour Association, an organization of tour industry professionals such as concierges, museum docents and tour guides.
Now that Charleston has been named the world’s No. 1 tourist destination by readers of Conde Nast travel magazine, Ray’s job as president has become a little more involved.
“People have been calling me off the hook,” he says.
Two weeks ago, a group from Wisconsin called Ray asking for a guide who could give them a city tour and a plantation tour and who could travel with them from Charleston to Savannah to give them a historical narrative of the region as they passed through it.
“There’s not too many people who can do all of that,” Ray said. “I found it for them. They were happy, and (the tour guide) wouldn’t have gotten that work if she wasn’t part of the tour association.”
Ray has proven to be an effective president since he was nominated earlier this year. He’s put new emphasis on networking, and he set up the tour association’s first website, tour charleston.org. As a result, association membership has tripled.
Though Ray may have a knack for administration, his true passion is guiding tours.
On a typical tour with him, tourists may learn that John C. Calhoun’s widow hated the first statue of her husband that was erected in Marion Square.
They’ll also probably learn how tedious it was for artisans to make wrought-iron gates, and how Charleston’s famed cobblestone streets were once a symbol of a bad part of town.
“He really puts you in awe of Charleston and how much there is to learn about it,” says Grant Stiemke, a concierge at Market Pavilion.
Stiemke has been setting up tours with Ray for his guests for about four years. He said knowing someone like Ray often comes in handy.
“Sometimes a real history buff will come up to me and ask some crazy question. So I’ll call Al, and without even taking a breath, he can tell me everything I’d ever want to know plus 10 more things,” he says.
When Stiemke sends his guests to find Ray, he just tells them to look for the guy on the sidewalk in the brimmed canvas hat.
“No matter what kind of weather it is, he’s always wearing that hat,” Stiemke says.
‘So into Charleston’
Ray’s passionate display of Charleston’s history might make it seem like he’s been a tour guide all his life, but Ray didn’t always expect to make tourism his career.
He left a job at a shoe store in 1979 to become a part-time tour guide with Palmetto Carriage.
Tom Doyle, now owner of Palmetto Carriage, worked alongside Ray when he first started leading tours.
“I remember Al was just so into Charleston. He had his own way about him, this sort of way of telling stories that really fit carriage tours,” Doyle says.
Though Ray was skilled at his job with Palmetto Carriage, he didn’t stay forever.
In 1985, he went on to pursue commercial real estate, another career that lasted only a few years.
“In my family, being in sales was not acceptable,” Ray said. “My family is mostly medically oriented. I figured doing occupational therapy would be something that would make them happy.”
In the late 1980s, Ray earned a degree from the Medical University of South Carolina and practiced occupational therapy in Aiken and later in Jacksonville, Fla.
When his parents, Dr Bernard and Lillian Ray, fell ill a few years later, Ray returned to Charleston to help take care of them.
He continued to work in health care, but he said tending to sick people at work and at home began to weigh on him.
“I dreamed of a life where I could work in a lovely, beautiful setting with people who were out to have a good time, who were smiling and laughing, and when I was finished for the day — I’d be finished for the day. That didn’t happen in health care,” he says.
In 1997, Ray decided to get his tour guide license back.
“Going back to tourism was such a wonderful outlet for me.”
But the industry was not the same as when he left it. Charleston had more hotels, galleries and restaurants.
The strip joints and warehouses that lined Meeting Street between Hasell and Market streets in the early ’80s had been replaced with Hyman’s Seafood and the Omni Hotel, now Charleston Place.
The changes he noticed in the late 1990s were the beginnings of what he calls Charleston’s renaissance.
“I personally believe, as a historian of sorts, that the city of Charleston we have today is probably as grand as it was in the mid-18th century,” he says. “It has a thriving middle class, a wealthy upper class, and it’s a city with opportunities for further expansion.”
It’s certainly an exciting time to be a tour guide in Charleston.
Though he admits he’s making a fraction of what he earned as a therapist, Ray says he couldn’t be happier.
“It’s really ideal. I get to work in a beautiful environment surrounded by happy people,” he said.
“I am not a wealthy man, not at all. But my bills are paid and my days are six hours long. And I love it, love it, love it.”