A tribute to Lois Gray
By Al Smith

Posted on January 1, 0001 12:00 AM

Former Russellville newspaper publisher Al Smith first met the Gray family when they came to Logan County to build the Auburn Nursing Center many decades ago. They became close friends. Al and Martha Helen Smith often attended the Kentucky Derby as the guests of the Grays, and Lois served on two state boards which Smith chaired, the Oral History Commission and the Kentucky Arts Council. The son who was CEO when the Auburn facility was built, Howard, was chairman of the board at WKU when Dr. Gary Ransdell was named president, and another son, Jim, is now mayor of Lexington. The Grays and Smiths are so close that Mayor Gray sent a private plane to Florida to transport Al and Martha Helen to be with the family while Mrs. Gray was dying. Al's thoughts follow.

While Lois Gray, who was buried recently at her beloved hometown of Glasgow, is credited with leading her family in transforming the little building company she and her husband founded there into an international construction powerhouse now based in Lexington, her legacy is much more than that of a lady in a hard hat.

A woman of exceptional grace and beauty, elegant manners, slender figure and stylish dress, she looked a little incongruous under that work site helmet in the company publicity pictures. But her lovely smile, her soft speech of welcome to clients from all over the world who attended her Derby parties, then returned to sign a contract, and her steely determination to help her children make good on every promise became the public face of the brand her four sons and their two sisters called “The Gray Way” of doing business.

She carried the title of chairman for nearly 50 years while the sons took turns as CEO, one, Jim, becoming mayor of Lexington, and they and their employes executed the operating plans that made them one of the nation's most admired design/build construction firms.

They were building strip shopping centers, schools, and small town nursing homes, and I was a weekly newspaper editor when I met them 40 years ago in western Kentucky, mistaking Howard, the 23-year-old president, for the office boy. Newly widowed at 51, her youngest son only seven, she had little time to grieve when her husband James Norris Gray, a popular civic booster in Glasgow, died suddenly of cancer. An artist at heart, but raised a princess in rural Barren County, the daughter of a renowned country doctor and a school teacher, she ignored advice to shut down, charmed mentors into helping, and inspired her young sons into picking up their dad's dreams.

I knew them when they were insolvent, mired in debt but saved in part by their mother's gritty resolve not let them fail. Despite her deep roots in Glasgow, she blessed their decision to broaden their horizon and relocate the company in Lexington where they won the largest sub contract of any Kentucky firm chosen to build the Toyota plant at Georgetown.

That was a big step in the direction they have moved to achieve a significant niche as a builder of choice for foreign countries—over 350 Japanese companies to date and some 400 in total for companies from Korea, Australia, Austria and China.

Early on, customers and friends understood that Lois believed a lot of life was about service. In World War II, as a WAVE officer, she lived under Marine guard in Washington where she plotted positions of the wartime fleet at Naval Headquarters. Never forgetting that personal history, eventually she took her large brood of grandchildren to Normandy to visit the memorials to the D-Day invasion. Learning from her father, a leader in Kentucky health crusades, that all of us should be concerned for the needs of our fellow citizens, Lois and her sons served on college and university boards across the Commonwealth, raised money for the arts and education, and helped build the Thomas Clark History Center in Frankfort.

Lured by the beauty of the Maine coast, freed from business cares as her company stabilized, she spent happy summer months in her last years painting watercolors around Camden, Me. Then the memory thief of Alzheimer's called to claim her. But while there was pulse in her veins on the last day of her life at her Lexington home, the gathered family, realizing what she would want to hear from the world she was leaving, began to sing at her bedside. Remembering happy times on Derby Day, they sang, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

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