Retirement would not suit the Rev. Ralph Carney.
Long past the age when most men slow down, Carney kept his mind sharp as he approached his 90th birthday by ministering to Catholic patients at Madigan Army Medical Center.
He took that assignment in 1999 after “retiring” from three previous jobs – as an Army chaplain, as a supervisor at Western State Hospital and as a priest at St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Lakewood.
“He didn’t want to watch the grass grow,” said his good friend, Mark Hunter of Lakewood.
Carney, 89, died Aug. 26 in his Tacoma home while getting ready to celebrate Mass that morning at Madigan. Hunter found Carney that day. The friend drove to the priest’s home with a heavy heart knowing it was out of character for Carney to skip a Mass for any reason.
“He was going to force himself to work, and he died with his boots on,” Hunter said. “I don’t think he left anything undone.”
Carney’s careers and interests took him all over the world as a military service member and priest. He learned how to fly as a young man and had a lifelong affinity for planes and sports cars.
“He was so much,” said his niece, Stephanie Stephens of Hartfield, Va. “He lived life to the fullest.”
Born in the nation’s capital in 1923, Carney went on to serve in the Navy, Air Force and Army. It was a career that gave him deep ties to the military, which he honored in his last years by spending his days at Madigan.
“He had a love for his ministry,” said Lt. Col. Jimmy Davis, chief of Madigan’s pastoral services. “He had a sense of loyalty and obligation to people he had gotten to know at Madigan.”
In World War II, Carney patrolled the South American coast as a sailor looking for enemy submarines. He left the service after the war and was ordained as a Catholic priest.
Carney rejoined the military as an Air Force chaplain in 1957. He answered a call from the Army seeking chaplains to go to Vietnam in 1964.
Hunter said Carney told him stories about flying to multiple American bases each day and ministering to soldiers in combat. Carney’s commander once ordered him to take a two-week leave because Carney was exhausting himself with long days in Vietnam.
“He was selfless,” Hunter said. “He wasn’t worried about himself; he was worried about everybody else.”
Carney retired as an Army lieutenant colonel in 1976. He earned a master’s degree in psychology and found work at Western State Hospital, where he trained pastors.
He began his ministry at St. John Bosco church in 1992 and served there through 1999.
Hunter had known Carney for the past five years. They grew closer in 2010 when Carney suffered a heart attack. Hunter, a retired airman, would drive the priest to work at Madigan and spend time with him on weekends.
They’d share military stories and talk about the planes and cars that fascinated Carney.
“There was never a dull moment,” Hunter said.
He knew his older friend would pass on one day, but Hunter said he was shocked the day it happened.
“When he wasn’t at work, when I was driving to the condo, I had a feeling he was gone,” Hunter said. “I knew he was in heaven flying airplanes and driving Porsches.”
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story had Rev. Carney's first name as "Ray."