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A Man of the Times

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As much lore as accomplishment lies behind the many mansion fronts in Conyers Farm, and that includes the sprawling lakeside manor of Ray and Alicia Joslin. Carvings in the trees beside the waterline testify to the land’s former popularity as a lovers’ lane. The house itself, a grand Georgian panoply of two-story bookshelves and coffered ceilings, was built around a unique set of floor plans sketched out on graph paper by the architecturally inclined Alicia.

Of course, hardly anyone gets a house in gated Conyers Farm without doing something noteworthy for it. The world Ray Joslin helped create is as close as your television remote. When Bill Kurtis examines the trail of a mad-dog killer, or Tyne Daly takes on her daughter’s stalker, or a paleontologist brushes a velociraptor egg for the benefit of a television camera, much of the credit for what you see belongs to Joslin.

“When you look at those channels Ray helped get off the ground, A&E and History and Biography and Lifetime, it’s smart-ish programming,” notes Paul S. Maxwell, a renowned commentator on the cable television business. “The smart part is they don’t talk down to their targets. Take a look around the dial; some of it talks down to you or presumes you’re not that bright.”

If your idea of a successful cable entrepreneur is someone like the mercurial Ted Turner, you may be disappointed meeting Joslin. A low-key fellow in every sense of the word, with a quiet voice, pleasantly wizened features and a gentle manner, he doesn’t overwhelm you with his personality. Rather you get a sense from him of what’s what in the world, a command of facts and names that leads him off into many interesting and rewarding directions. He knows a lot about a lot of things, and that and his affability have been critical components of his success. Yet you never doubt the fire burning deep inside him.

When Joslin arrived at the Hearst Corporation in 1980 to helm what would become a key component of today’s basic cable television package, his post was a fledgling one in every sense of the word. Hearst, though nearly a century old, was still known for newspapers and magazines. It adjusted to the coming media revolution like everyone else did — slowly.

“I got an eight-by-ten-foot office, a storage room they cleared out, which had contained competitor magazines,” Joslin remembers. “There was no mail, phone calls, revenue or profits.”

From such humble beginnings, and with the timely partnership of an ABC executive in similar straits named Herb Granath, came a revolution in basic cable programming. Neither the Arts & Entertainment Channel nor Lifetime would be what they are today if not for what is known in cable television circles as “the Herb & Ray Show.”

Now it’s a quarter-century later. A&E has retired its original motto “Time Well Spent” and created a slew of new subsidiary networks, most prominently the History Channel and the Biography Channel. Lifetime has also morphed into something far larger than a single TV channel, garnering credit in the process for bringing women’s issues closer to the forefront of public discourse. Joslin, meanwhile, departed his executive position at Hearst in 2004 to found 3TP (Three-Time Point), a company creating technology designed to enable early detection of breast and prostate cancer [see sidebar]. Such an initiative flies in the face of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contention about “no second acts in American lives,” but Joslin seems the right man for the job: His life very nearly had no first act.

Ray Joslin’s mother “took sick” with apparent schizophrenia when he was nine and spent  most of the next thirty-five years in a series of mental institutions. His father, a business owner and serial philanderer (“I think at last count he had twenty-two children, many out of wedlock”), abandoned young Ray shortly after his mother took ill, leaving him in the care of his maternal grandparents, whose third-story tenement apartment overlooked a gas station on the rough streets of South Providence, Rhode Island.

“Essentially, from age twelve I grew up in South Providence, which then and now, is exactly like the South Bronx,” he says. “I got interested in education because I had to get out of there. I’ve got friends I grew up with who spent large portions of their life in jail.”

A diligent student who worked as many as three jobs on the side to pay for his clothing and other basic amenities, Joslin cared enough to request that the city board of education let him attend the better public schools in the city, even though he resided outside their districts. He got up an hour earlier to make the necessary bus transfers. Accepted into Hartford’s Trinity College as a Westinghouse scholar, he was supported by scholarship money from local Masonic organizations and the Episcopal bishop of Rhode Island, who dipped into the church’s discretionary fund to buy Joslin a topcoat.

Alas, college fashion in the 1950s wasn’t so formal. It was an era of white bucks and letter sweaters. Then, as now, Trinity had a reputation as a school for rich prep-school kids, a reputation perhaps undeserved but one Ray felt acutely as someone who did not belong. He worked hard to rectify that, transforming a summer milk route in Cape Cod into a thriving concern by convincing a friendly real estate agent who rented out vacation cottages to let him handle the dairy needs for her ever-shifting roster of clients.

“I used to make over $3,000 a summer, a fortune, working every day of the week,” he recalls. “I went back to Trinity a rich kid, so I could have the same sports coats and sweaters as everybody.”

Joslin was elected president of his fraternity and to the college senate. “I had a great experience in college,” he says.

“I believe my heart and head are with that institution and what it opened up for me.”

Joslin has given back to Trinity, donating more than three million dollars to the school and serving on its board of trustees. He also created a special scholarship that helps some of Trinity’s promising but needier undergraduates each year, a way of continuing the spirit of those who boosted him years before.

“He represents the best of the school, the closest to a Horatio Alger figure I’ve known,” Trinity president James Jones Jr. remarks. “I don’t know of a single person here who doesn’t love Ray. He’s just an unassuming guy who loves every blade of grass on campus. Lord knows what voices he hears when he comes to visit.”

Joslin’s time at Trinity nearly came to a premature end when he was suspended during his senior year. Nearly fifty years later, Joslin prefers not to talk about what happened, except to say, “It was a great lesson to me.” Trinity’s dean of students, Joseph Clarke, the same man who kicked Joslin out and a figure he calls a pivotal mentor in his life, readmitted him a year later. All was forgiven; Joslin was even re-elected president of his fraternity. Joslin’s present scholarship at the school bears his name and Clarke’s.

Years later, when he was in his thirties and carving out a successful career in cable television, Joslin made an effort to find his father. A friend in the FBI told him to get in touch with the Salvation Army’s missing persons bureau. “After searching for two years,” Joslin recalls, “the Salvation Army wrote me a letter and said, ‘We’re sorry to inform you, but your father died forty-five days ago.’ He had been living in Springfield, Massachusetts, where I had been born and where I had looked for him in the phone directory. But he had an unlisted number. It bothered me all that time that he never reached out to me. I thought I was kind of special in his life. He was Ray and I was Ray Junior. When I was a kid in Providence, I would hitchhike from Providence to New Haven, where he lived.”

Joslin had a better relationship with his mother. As a child he had witnessed her confinement in a large, tiled room full of naked inmates and wardens brandishing hoses, “like you see in The Snake Pit.” But after getting his degree in economics from Trinity in 1959 and finding profitable full-time employment, he had her rediagnosed and got her better care. “She did enjoy the last ten years of her life with some degree of normalcy,” he says.