Mayor Jim Gray's mother, Lois Howard Gray, 91, the matriarch of her family's business and an advocate for arts and education, died Monday afternoon of complications from Alzheimer's disease.
Mrs. Gray was a Glasgow native who co-founded Gray Construction with her late husband, James Norris Gray.
She earned an undergraduate degree from Transylvania University and a master's degree in art education from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University.
During World War II, Mrs. Gray was a lieutenant junior grade in a newly formed branch of the military, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, drafting and mapping positions of U.S. ships in the Atlantic.
After marrying James Norris Gray in 1947, she had six children, and she operated a home interior-supply business.
Outwardly Mrs. Gray had grace and charm, "but she had an iron will and a fierce determination," Jim Gray said. "What a character."
The youngest of Mrs. Gray's six children was just 7 years old in 1972, when her husband died, 12 years after the couple had formed James N. Gray Construction Co.
Mrs. Gray took over as chairman of the company, which was based in Glasgow. The couple's oldest son, Howard Gray, became company president when he was 23.
The family made the company into one of the nation's top design-build contractors. But there were hard times.
"In the late 1970s, we were insolvent, which is close to bankrupt," Jim Gray said. "Our father passed away, and we were just learning the business. ... We made some bad mistakes, lost money on projects."
Mrs. Gray put up everything she had, except her house, as collateral and personally signed a $1 million note to guarantee a bank loan, Gray said. "She had faith we'd overcome our mistakes, learn from them and make it."
Mrs. Gray was chairwoman of the board from 1972 until about 2002.
"Operationally, she was not involved day to day. But when we were cultivating customers, she would have dinner parties for visiting customers at her house in Glasgow," Jim Gray said. "She had a lot of business savvy. And she was a good judge of character."
The family moved the company headquarters to Lexington in the 1990s. The business has offices in Bowling Green, Birmingham, Ala., and Tokyo. It also owns WS Construction in Versailles and Gray-I.C.E. Builders in Anaheim, Calif.
Anthony Roy, senior vice president of construction at Gray, said many nights when he worked until 8 or 9 p.m., "she would bring me something to eat. She was always concerned about me getting home to be with my family ... From a business standpoint, she was very approachable and genuine."
Mrs. Gray was a member of many professional organizations. A founding member of the Lexington chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, Mrs. Gray received the national organization's highest honor, National Woman Business Owner of the Year, in 2002.
The Kentucky Commission on Women awarded her its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
Mrs. Gray also was a well-known advocate for arts and education.
She served on the boards of Transylvania University, Lindsey Wilson College, the Kentucky Council on Higher Education, the Kentucky Educational Foundation and the Governor's Scholars Program. She was a member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
She was active with the Kentucky Arts Council, was a member of the Kentucky Oral History Commission and was the state chairwoman for the opening of Louisville's Kentucky Center for the Arts. She also was a founding member of Horse Cave Theatre.
Mrs. Gray was an avid watercolorist and enjoyed painting the Barren County countryside and coastal Maine.
"What was really important to her was capturing these places she had been that meant something to her," said Jim Clark, president and CEO of LexArts. "She had a very distinct style."
Louis Zoellar Bickett II, a Lexington artist and friend of Mrs. Gray's, had Sunday supper with her nearly every week for about three years. He said Mrs. Gray "had the table manners of a Lady Astor."
One evening when Jim Gray joined them for dinner, he was texting on his cell phone. Mrs. Gray held up her thumbs to mimic texting and said, in a slightly disapproving tone, "At the table!" Bickett recalled with a chuckle.
On these Sunday evenings, the conversation inevitably turned to art. Mrs. Gray's house had floors painted snow white and white walls, designed for the best display of her eclectic art collection, Bickett said.
"She had pieces from the Pacific rim, her own watercolors, Joe Downing paintings and antique paintings," he said. "Many of the doors in the house were ancient pine doors she had shipped from France. You felt like you were stepping into a movie set."
Mrs. Gray is survived by two sisters. In addition to Jim Gray, she is survived by two daughters and three other sons: Julia Navolio and her husband, Jim, of Versailles; Howard Gray and his wife, Cassandra, of Lexington; Franklin Gray and his wife, Vanessa Wells-Gray, of Lexington; Lisa McKeachie and her husband, Rev. William McKeachie, of Charleston, S.C., and Stephen Gray and his wife, Lisa Gumm-Gray, of Lexington. She had eighteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Published in Lexington Herald-Leader on Mar. 20, 2012
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