With his natural exuberance and positivity, Ray O’Canto is the type of guy who easily makes friends.
Pretty much everyone the Fresno media personality meets becomes one.
“Someone meeting Ray for the first time is going to feel like they’ve known him forever,” said Paul Loeffler, the voice of Fresno State sports and O’Canto’s former partner on radio broadcasts. “He’s instantly their best friend and on their side.”
O’Canto can really use those friends now. Two months after being hospitalized with cancer, the host and executive producer of the syndicated TV series “DineOut Along the Road” was recently admitted to Hinds Hospice.
To help cover medical bills and offset the closure of his advertising business, O’Canto’s family and friends have set up a gofundme.com account. Total donations surpassed $20,000 as of Tuesday morning.
“We have just been so touched and overwhelmed by the generosity of the community,” said Denise O’Canto, his wife of 33 years. “I never realized how many people Ray has touched in so many different aspects. He just has this charisma.”
O’Canto was hospitalized in June after complaining of stomach pain. That’s when a CT scan revealed cancerous tumors in his pancreas, liver and lungs.
The 60-year-old underwent two rounds of chemotherapy. But instead of killing the cancer, the treatment caused severe side effects and complications.
“All of the side effects that are listed for chemo, poor Ray got,” Denise O’Canto said. “The doctor told us two weeks ago that his body can’t stand the chemo. It was killing him.”
“I don’t think anyone anticipated it getting to this point so quickly,” Loeffler said. “I know he didn’t.”
Since entering hospice care Saturday, O’Canto has received a steady stream of visitors. They’ve included some of Ray’s former classmates at Redwood High in Visalia, where his family moved at age 6 from Caracas, Venezuela, as well as former baseball teammates at Fresno State, where he played from 1980-81.
“He’s had so many visitors that oftentimes it drains him,” Denise O’Canto said. “But Ray is not going to miss a conversation. No way.”
O’Canto seldom misses a chance to converse. It doesn’t matter whether it’s with a close friend he’s known for decades or a recently met acquaintance.
“There are few people in the Valley who have touched so many in our region like Ray O’Canto,” former Bee executive editor Jim Boren wrote on Facebook. “Go to lunch with him at Richard’s, and people line up for a quick chat. And Ray never just says ‘Hi’ and then goes back to his table talk.
“The conversation is always deep and meaningful, even if it’s short. After they walk away, he’ll explain how he knows them and then tick off least three things that makes them special.”
Or as Loeffler put it: “Ray has the rare ability to make others feel better about themselves, just by the way he speaks to them.”
‘Still the same Ray’
Despite his condition, O’Canto has lost none of the sunny, upbeat personality that draws people to him.
“Even though he’s been completely blindsided by this, he’s still the same Ray,” Loeffler said. “He’s weak and he’s tired, but that exuberance isn’t gone.”
O’Canto is probably best known for his on-air reaction after the “Wonderdogs” captured the 2008 College World Series in Omaha, Neb. While Loeffler went quiet to allow listeners to soak in the historic moment, O’Canto exclaimed, “Get dirty, baby! Get dirty! Get dirty! Get dirty!”
It was a call as charming and enthusiastic as the man himself.
“He was a great representative of the alumni and the fan base, and I know that endeared him to the Red Wave,” Loeffler said.
More recently, O’Canto served as host and co-executive producer of “DineOut Along the Road” that frequently featured restaurants from the central San Joaquin Valley. The show ran seven seasons and is syndicated in seven markets across four states.
Restaurants and baseball run parallel through O’Canto’s blood. His father came to the U.S. from Venezuela to play minor-league baseball. After Jose O’Canto retired, he worked 40 years at the El Presidente restaurant in Visalia, rising from dishwasher to owner.
Ray O’Canto is also president of the Fresno-based advertising agency NTD Media, which closed during his illness.
‘We’re all scared for him’
Denise O’Canto said her husband is “thankful and overwhelmed” by the support he’s received from the Fresno community. She asked for those thinking and praying for Ray to continue doing so as he lives out his remaining days.
“We’re all scared for him, and we know he’s going to a better place,” Denise O’Canto said. “Ray does too, but it’s still frightening.”
Bob Bennett, the legendary Fresno State baseball coach who recruited Ray O’Canto out of College of the Sequoias, described him as a passionate “salesman” for baseball who gave more to the game than he got back.
“He’s just a very special guy,” Bennett said. “He’s got a lot of friends.”
Good thing. O’Canto and his family need those friends now more than ever.
“Ray doesn’t want to go – he’s not ready to go,” Denise O’Canto said. “But he had a very extraordinary life. He told me that himself.”