The pantheon of noble Oregonians made room for another entrant last week with the passing of John Gray.
You can be excused for not recognizing the name: Gray, who died at 93, had faded in recent years from the news, and his death was initially treated in a way that understated his enormous contributions in shaping the modern identity of this state and in guiding and supporting many of its leading institutions.
John Russell, a Portland developer who is active in political circles, said of Gray, "John Gray has been to Oregon what Lorenzo de' Medici was to Florence."
Gray wasn't exactly born in a log cabin, but he did come from humble beginnings. Born in Ontario, Ore., within spitting distance of Idaho, Gray's father died when he was five and his mom moved the family to Corvallis where she rented a home for $2.50 a month and taught elementary school. Gray graduated from Oregon State University in 1940, enlisted in the Army and, after the war, went to Harvard Business School.
After graduate school, Gray came home and was one of the earliest employees of the Oregon Saw Chain Manufacturing Company, a firm he took a controlling interest in a few years later and grew into one of the largest suppliers to the then-robust timber industry. In 1984, he sold the company, then called Omark, for $267 million.
Grays take was $74 million. But he did not sit on those gains.
His philanthropy was wide and deep. His giving over the years cannot be fully cataloged here, but some of the institutions that benefited from his generosity include OMSI, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Habitat for Humanity ($2 million), Oregon Health and Science University ($5 million), Portland State University, REACH and The Lands Trust Alliance.
He was a major donor to Reed College
—a $2 million gift
he and his wife Betty provided was intended to help lighten up a student body that he thought was “too serious”; it funded hot air balloon rides, barn dances and VooDoo donuts. But his service as a trustee was perhaps more important. For 45 years, Gray sat on the Reed board and was chairman during the late sixties when Reed was directionless and facing a financial crisis. His stewardship, according to many, is the reason Reed is now considered one of the premier liberal arts institutions in the country.
Gray gave to more humble organizations as well. In 2006, the Community Transitional School, which serves homeless children, was trying to fund a permanent home for itself in the Cully neighborhood. The school had wide support but found itself stuck in its efforts, $500,000 short of its goal.
“John Gray heard about our predicament and scheduled a visit to the school to meet the kids,” recalled then-State Sen. Ryan Deckert, (D-Beaverton). “ He made an immediate commitment of $400k and construction began shortly after his visit.”
Perhaps more impressive, Deckert recalls, “He continued to visit the school often and have lunch with the kids every Thanksgiving.”
Oregon has a fair number of wealthy people but not a lot who give generously. Gray, says Paul Bragdon, president of Reed from 1971 to 1988, “offered an excellent model of how to approach and provide philanthropy.”
“There are a lot of people that I have had a chance to meet,” says U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland), “ but John Gray is truly iconic: quiet, humble, brilliant, patient, generous--not just of his money, but of his time.”
Blumenauer first encountered Gray in 1969 when the former was a student at Lewis and Clark and trying to lower Oregon’s voting age from 21 to 19. Gray supported the idea.“At the time, the notion that a business leader was interested and concerned was [remarkable],” Blumenauer says.
Gray was a moderate Republican in the vein of Gov. Tom McCall and U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, whose greatest passion was for the environment. Gray was a believer in land-use laws and Oregon’s first-in-the-nation belief that every city and county needed to develop a comprehensive plan.
Many business leaders saw land-use planning as a threat but Gray embraced it. In 1982, when Oregon languished in a deep recession, the business community rallied around an effort by Bill Moshofsky, a politically ambitious timber executive, to repeal Oregon’s land use laws. Measure 6 gathered enough signatures to make the ballot.
Although the measure was ahead by 20 points months before the election, it was defeated, according to Angus Duncan, who helped run the anti-6 campaign, in part because “John Gray led the sensible members of Oregon's business community in opposing the initiative.”
For many Oregonians, Gray’s most palpable legacy to this state may be his developments: Salishan, which he built in the mid-sixties, a beautiful resort communty on a spit of beach on the central Oregon coast; Sunriver, which he developed in the late sixties when Bend was still a small burg; Skamania Lodge in the Columbia Gorge; and, John’s Landing, a retail center along Macadam Avenue that kickstarted the improvements along Highway 43.
“Gray changed the way we all thought about the Oregon Coast with his creation of Salishan,” Russell says. ”He changed the way we thought about Central Oregon with his creation of Sunriver; and he changed our relationship with the Willamette River with his creation of John's Landing.”
Even Sports Illustrated
, not know as a journal for planners, took notice. “Gray's entry into large-scale land development is a calculated attempt to raise Oregon's backwoodsy taste to a level in keeping with its natural beauty,” the magazine wrote
in 1969. “His concept couldn't have come along at a better time for Oregon, on the eve of mass discovery by trampled Californians wending their way northward.”
Said one fan: "John Gray was a rare teacher, never writing or lecturing, just quietly doing.
Oregon needs another one."