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Robert Raymond ‘Ray’ Riordon, who founded and coached the swimming program at Towson University, dies

Robert Raymond "Ray" Riordon, right, works with his swim team in 1971. He coached the team at what is now Towson University for more than 30 years. (Baltimore Sun file photo)
Robert Raymond "Ray" Riordon, right, works with his swim team in 1971. He coached the team at what is now Towson University for more than 30 years. (Baltimore Sun file photo)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Robert Raymond “Ray” Riordon defied the aging limitations associated with being in his 40s and 50s to challenge Towson State students to games of racquetball, match them home run-for-home run in intramural softball and swim circles around them in water polo.

And his competitive juices continued with his three sons, Denny, Mike and John.

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“My dad, he never held back,” Mike Riordon said. “I had to bust my butt to finally beat him in one-on-one basketball, and he would push you. ... I remember when my brother Denny finally beat him in ping-pong, and [Denny] just went crazy.”

Mr. Riordon, who founded the swimming program at what is now Towson University and served as its head coach for the first 30 years, died Saturday at his home in Millsboro, Delaware, due to kidney failure. He was 87.

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Mike Gillespie, who dived for Mr. Riordon for five years with the Tigers and then joined him as an assistant coach for another five, called Mr. Riordon “a phenomenal role model” who was complemented by his late wife, Jean.

“He and his wife would do a lasagna dinner every year for every team, and I got to go to 10 of them, and I was stuffed every time,” Mr. Gillespie said. “Mrs. Riordon would slave over the food, and she would have both the men’s and women’s teams over. You’re talking about 50 people at least at their house over in Cockeysville, and we would just have a phenomenal time. The food was great, and they just treated everybody like family.”

Born in Washington, D.C., Mr. Riordon — who preferred to be called Ray — was the elder of two boys raised by the former Beda Tilda Arey, a homemaker, and Robert Callahan Riordon, a patent lawyer. Mr. Riordon enjoyed a happy childhood, but suffered a traumatic experience at the age of 10 on some nearby railroad tracks.

A friend dropped a gun, which discharged, and the bullet struck Mr. Riordon in the leg and barely missed the femoral artery. But his son said an allergic reaction to penicillin — administered to prevent an infection — almost killed his father.

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“My dad said, ‘I only went down to those railroad tracks twice. I went down there, and I got shot the first time, and I went down there when I was 14 to try a cigarette, and that was worse than getting shot,’” Mike Riordon said from his home in Clearwater, Florida.

Mr. Riordon attended Shepherd College (now Shepherd University) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where he compiled a 16-4 career record as a pitcher for the baseball team. But he made his athletic mark in swimming, setting school records in the 400-yard freestyle, the 200-yard individual medley and the 300-yard relay. (He was one of six men who formed the inaugural class inducted into that university’s Hall of Fame in 1986.)

Robert Raymond “Ray” Riordon's swimmers won 35 of 37 meets from 1980 to 1983.
Robert Raymond “Ray” Riordon's swimmers won 35 of 37 meets from 1980 to 1983.

After marrying the former Jean Marion Pinder in 1955 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and graduating in 1956 with a bachelor’s in education, Mr. Riordon joined the Marine Corps, rising to captain in active duty and in the reserves until 1964. During that time, he earned a master’s in education from Miami University of Ohio in 1962 and launched his career as a coach at West Virginia University, helming the swim team in 1963-64.

The following year, Mr. Riordon was hired by Towson to start the swim program there. Until Memorial (now Burdick) Pool opened in 1968, he coached the cross country team for three years and the track and field team for two seasons. The members of the track team bequeathed Mr. Riordon the nickname “Razor Ray” for the flattop style he wore since his time in the Marines.

Mr. Gillespie said at 6 feet 2, Mr. Riordon — who also was a professor in the kinesiology department — was an imposing presence to first-year swimmers and divers.

“He would always give this preseason speech to the freshmen. ‘Watch out for the girls. Be careful. Don’t be High School Harrys,’ as he used to call them,” Mr. Gillespie said. “It would scare the heck out of you as a freshman, and I got to see it for 10 years. And it really didn’t deviate much. It was effective, and that was Coach. His bark was way worse than his bite.”

Mr. Gillespie said Mr. Riordon excelled at recruiting swimmers and divers from area schools such as Calvert Hall and Loyola Blakefield and international locales such as Barbados. Because of his rapport with athletes from Barbados, Mr. Riordon and his wife took the Tigers to the eastern Caribbean island every three years for an international swim meet, open-water marathon swim and an ocean water polo match.

“The funniest part of all this was, my dad got a letter from President Nixon in 1971 after the first trip congratulating him, the team and college for great international relations,” Mike Riordon said. “After Nixon fell from grace, he kept the framed letter on his office wall, and when students and swimmers asked about it, he said, ‘It’s there to remind students nobody can break the rules, especially freshmen and anyone on the swim team.’ The look on the students’ faces just made his day. He also renamed the letter his ‘Tricky Dick Letter.’”

Mr. Riordon was inducted into the university’s Hall of Fame in 2002.
Mr. Riordon was inducted into the university’s Hall of Fame in 2002.

During Mr. Riordon’s tenure, the Tigers went 246-176, enjoyed 23 winning seasons, and captured seven conference championships (six Tri-State and one Mason-Dixon). In a three-year period from 1980 to 1983, they won 35 of 37 meets, including a streak of 29 and two perfect seasons.

After the university added women’s swimming, Mr. Riordon became the head coach from 1988 until his retirement in 1998. The women posted a 55-58 record with six consecutive winning seasons at the end of his career.

“He was very no-nonsense, but he had a great ability to relate to the best swimmer and the worst swimmer or diver and pull the best out of them,” said Mr. Gillespie, who graduated in 1982 with bachelor’s in business administration and mass communications. “A lot of coaches would want to coach the top people all the time, but he was really good about giving time to everyone on the team — men, women, it didn’t matter. He was very interested in everyone doing their personal bests. He would say, ‘Don’t worry about trying to be first. Just worry about continuing to improve your times and scores.’”

Mr. Riordon was twice named Towson’s Coach of the Year. He was inducted into the university’s Hall of Fame in 2002.

Mike Riordon said his parents — who were cared for by their daughter Cindy over the past five years — invited swimmers and divers who did not return home for the summer to stay with them when the on-campus dorms were closed.

“My mom would say, ‘They’ve got to stay here for the summer,’” Mr. Riordon said. “My dad looked around and said, ‘What the hell? The house is empty after we got rid of our kids, and I look around and there are all of these college kids crawling around here.’ Everybody was there. It was like, ‘Wait a minute, what happened to the empty nest?’”

Mr. Riordon said his father’s appetite was legendary, unmatched by many of the students who stayed with his parents.

“The joke in the house was, you would say, ‘I’m getting ice cream. What do you want?’” he said. “You never had to ask my dad. It was four [scoops of] vanilla and three [scoops of] chocolate. He would sit down and eat seven scoops of ice cream like it was nothing.”

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A small graveside service for Mr. Riordon limited to family is scheduled for Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Cockeysville, and his ashes will be buried next to those of his wife, who died Feb. 24, 2020. A celebration of life will be announced for a later date.

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In addition to his son Mike, Mr. Riordon is survived by two other sons, Denny Riordon of Ocean City and John Riordon of Georgetown, Delaware, one daughter, Cindy Riordon of Millsboro, Delaware; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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