ETHEL — A lot of people — perhaps most — fit into fairly neat categories. Ray Sibley is not one of them.
He’s a high school dropout with multiple college degrees, a welder and a poet, a hunter and a costume maker, a horseman and a schoolteacher. His house is filled with arrowheads, and there is a theatrical stage in his backyard on which he has directed Shakespearean plays.
Thrice married and thrice divorced, Sibley lives on a rural road in a 19th-century house almost entirely hidden by wild azaleas. Elsewhere, dewberries and blackberries grow in bunches, and he doesn’t waste their bounty.
“I love blackberry jelly,” Sibley said. “Nothing better with deer meat.”
Sibley, 65, does things his way. And he always has.
As a child, his family moved from Cameron Parish to Washington state following his father’s teaching career until his parents divorced, and he lived with his mother in Baker and Baton Rouge. He was a sophomore when he quit attending Istrouma High School in 1968.
“I liked school. I was good in school,” he said. “I just had problems with them and the way they were conservative about hair and dress. I wanted to be a hippie in a bad way. At Istrouma back then, everybody had mohawks.”
His mom kicked him out of the house, and he ended up living and working for an uncle in Florida until he followed a friend’s example and joined another organization that frowns on creative hairstyles — the Navy. The Vietnam War was in full swing, so he had plenty of work making bombs. That did not lead to civilian employment when he was discharged, but Sibley used military educational benefits to learn welding.
After several years working in California, he brought his first wife to Louisiana to see where he grew up, including Ethel, where he lived with grandparents in the summer.
“It was nothing but gravel roads,” Sibley said. “Everybody had outhouses. It was country back then.”
As opposed to the cosmopolitan Ethel of today. He decided to stay.
Sibley bought the house in 1980 without telling his wife, and got her a horse to make it up to her. These were boom times in the oil industry.
“I was making money hand-over-fist in 1980-81. It was good,” he said. “I’d be welding in that shipyard. … I made a quarter million the first year in four months. I’d never made money like that.”
Nor would he again. Oil prices plummeted, and jobs like Sibley’s dried up. The financial hardship helped end his marriage and started him thinking about a new career.
After doing some substitute teaching, he got an education degree at LSU. He shoed horses — a skill he learned with his wife’s horse — to help pay his way through school.
“I like middle school. You can fire those kids up,” he said. “You can build submarines with those kids if you get them going in the right direction. They don’t think they know anything, yet. Elementary kids, too much like babysitting, though I kind of like fifth grade. High school, they think they know everything.”
Sibley just kept on learning. He got interested in poetry slams. He went on to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in speech communication and a doctorate in literature.
He has taught at Broadmoor Middle School and created theater programs at West Feliciana, Baton Rouge Magnet and McKinley high schools. He still teaches at McKinley.
Never one to do things halfway, he built a stage in his backyard, adding a grassy slope for spectators. His welding skills came in handy for putting together the steel frame. He has staged six of Shakespeare’s plays there, for which he sewed the costumes. He calls his company Moonlark Productions.
“This thing is built like a battleship,” Sibley said. “I used to tease everybody if there ever comes a big flood, I’m going to cut the legs off, flip the thing upside down and sail away. You can drive a truck up on that stage, and I have before.”
It’s been several years since he’s staged a play there, but Sibley has been busy with other things. Having smoked for 50 years — beginning at 13 — he was diagnosed with throat cancer two years ago. In his living room hangs the frame that kept him motionless so he could receive the radiation treatments that now have him cancer-free.
“Whenever I feel like I want a cigarette, I come look at that thing,” he said. “That’s how they bolted me to that damn table to do that radiation. That was the most frightening thing in the world.”
Another pastime has overtaken Sibley’s attention. For many years, he has collected arrowheads he found in the Felicianas, and some in his collection he believes are about 10,000 years old. But he also learned the art of flint-knapping, using physical pressure to turn rocks into arrowheads and blades.
Just about every night, Sibley heads to his back porch and goes to work on rocks he’s found, many of which he’s heated in a kiln to make them more brittle and glossy.
He strikes the rock with a piece of deer antler to create a rough outline, then uses copper to press away flakes until he gets the desired shape and sharpness. Sibley has turned some of the arrowheads into jewelry, working strands of silver or gold onto them.
After he retires in 2017 from teaching, Sibley plans to take a trip searching for better rocks than are found in Louisiana. He figures he can cover the cost of the trip by shoeing horses.
“Put a sign up and people will wave you down,” he said. “It’s hard to find horse-shoers anymore.”
It’s hard to find anyone like Ray Sibley.