Former Congressman William H. Gray, III, a giant in Philadelphia politics who mentored a generation of African American leaders, died Monday in London, according to his office in Washington. He was 71.
No cause of death was immediately available.
Family spokesman Bill Epstein said Gray was attending the tennis matches at Wimbledon with his youngest son, Andrew. “Apparently, it was a sudden death,” said Epstein, who served as press secretary when Gray was first elected to Congress.
In Harrisburg, the House stood and paused in a moment of silence. Friends struggled to grasp the news that he was gone – he seemed strong, an avid tennis player. Others who knew Gray for decades – colleagues, political allies and church members – recalled him as a respected Philadelphia pastor, a fighter for justice and a man of keen political sense who put his charisma to good use.
“He could walk down the hallway, and everybody knew him, he knew everyone,” said Congressman Bob Brady. “I’m absolutely positively shocked. It’s a major, major loss to the city, to the area and to the nation.”
At the time of his death Gray was chairman emeritus of Gray Global Advisors, a business and government consultancy. Prior to founding the firm, he was president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, for which he raised over $2.3 billion for minority institutions.
His home was the pulpit of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, one of Philadelphia’s most elite and best known black churches. In 1972, Gray succeeded his father, who had succeeded his own father. Gray remained pastor during the time he served in Congress, from 1979 to 1991, commuting from his home in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington to preach on Sundays.
“If you look back over the last 50 years, there’s a handful of people that stood out as transformative leaders in Philadelphia and Bill Gray is one of them,” said George Burrell, a former city official and longtime political ally who attended Bright Hope under Gray.
Burrell counted Gray as one of his two or three closest friends. Their children grew together. Burrell got involved in Gray’s first campaign for Congress, spending almost every day with him. They played tennis on a regular basis.
In 1991, Gray surprised political watchers by leaving Congress to lead the college fund. He continued to run the church as pastor.
Friends reacted with shocked surprise Monday evening to news of Gray’s death, noting his relatively young age.
Gray represented the Second Congressional District of Pennsylvania and rose to become Majority Whip of the House of Representatives, the first African American in the 20th century to assume that leadership post. He also served as chair of the Budget Committee, and member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Foreign Operations.
“He was a trailblazer. He was a pioneer,” said state Rep. Dwight Evans, who considered Gray a mentor and teacher. “I learned a lot from him about building relationships with rural legislators. He set a tone, not just for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, but for the nation.”
In Congress, he helped shape the direction of U.S. foreign policy and pushed government resources towards international aid and development.
“I think he could have been speaker of the House if he had stayed in,” said Peter Vaira, a former U.S. Attorney and longtime friend. “Everybody – no matter which side you were on – could work with him.”
Vaira served as Gray’s attorney during a 1991 federal investigation that resulted in no charges. Federal authorities were seeking evidence in a criminal investigation that focused on the congressman’s finances, according to published accounts. On Monday, Vaira dismissed the investigation as “purely political.”
Gray’s influence in Philadelphia was enormous. He worked relentlessly for social justice and mentored a generation of young African American leaders.
The Rev. William B. Moore felt numb last night after hearing the news. The two met in 1974 in Philadelphia, and Moore worked for Gray in Congress. He would fill in at Bright Hope when Gray was not available.
“A great humanitarian,” Moore said. “He loved people. He loved helping people. He loved helping the city.”
Gray would say he was a politician but then add “first and foremost, I am a Baptist preacher,” Moore said.
“We would end each conversation telling each other how much we loved each other and appreciated each other,” Moore said. “He was very loyal to his friends.”
Philadelphia City Councilwoman Marian Tasco worked as Gray’s campaign manager in 1977 and 1978 and went on to work as his director of constituent services in Philadelphia between 1979 and 1983, when he was in Congress.
She was still trying to process the news of her mentor’s death on Monday.
“He’s just not somebody I would expect not to be here,” said Tasco.
Gray was always there, said Bill Miller IV, whose 50th Ward organization in Northwest Philadelphia helped elect Gray to Congress and remained closely allied with him over decades. Gray was so attentive to detail, even as the U.S. House majority whip, that he would call his people in Philadelphia in the middle of the night to talk strategy in elections.
“He rose to the highest level of Congress, and yet he would still call you about ward and division politics,” said Miller, a public-relations executive and veteran political consultant. He and his wife Linda, the former ward chair, were at Tasco’s house Monday to try and process the news.
They would strategize, always over lunch, all over the place – Holmes’ Restaurant in Camden, Susanna Foo in Center City, Tobin’s in West Oak Lane – where he would play Pac-Man between feasting on fried chicken and fish. He loved Pac-Man so much that he bought a real arcade version for his house.
Tasco said Gray discussed his health during a conversation last week. He told her he was following his doctor’s orders “because I want to be here a long time and enjoy my grandchildren,” Tasco recalled.
Gray doted on his two grandchildren, she said. And he was a great orator, she noted. “Short, sweet, to the point. He left you feeling good,” Tasco said.
“I think Bill Gray was the most significant African American political figure in Philadelphia in the past 35 years,” former Mayor Wilson Goode said Monday night. “His accomplishments as a Congressmen, as budget chair and majority whip put Philadelphia on the map. did incredible work in so many ways for this city.”
Goode said he and Gray met 42 years ago. They worked together on Gray’s unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1976. Gray was a significant supporter when Goode ran for mayor in 1983.
The two had met four times during the past year, including twice for lunch in Washington.
Goode rattled off names – Burrell, Tasco, Evans, Bishop, Chaka Fattah. “There is a whole list of people who got elected becasue Congressman Gray supported them”
“He was a supporter of women in politics,” said Rep. Louise Bishop (D., Phila.). “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him. I did not dream I would ever be serving in House of Representatives. There is a void, Congressman Gray has been called to another assignment.”
Gray “built a very significant and formidable political organization in this town,” said Carl Singley, former dean of the Temple Law School, referring to Gray’s helping develop prominent political figures such as U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and former State Rep. John F. White Jr.
In 2004, after spending half his life as pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church of North Philadelphia, Gray decided to step down, ending three generations of successive family leadership.
“We’ve had five pastors – and three of them were named William H. Gray,” said a friend and member of Bright Hope, Augusta Clark.
Gray had preached at Bright Hope since 1972, after the death of his father, William H. Gray Jr. The plan was for Gray to be succeeded by Rev. Cean James, the church’s executive pastor.
But in 2005 the church was jarred by two revelations and Gray besieged with questions: Why did Bright Hope, widely considered Philadelphia’s proudest and most elite black church, fail to detect false academic claims made by the young preacher who was designated to succeed Gray? And why did the church allow a choir director recently accused of sexual offenses with underage girls to remain in his job?
Gray found himself on the defensive and was forced to cancel his plan to retire from the church, even though he had already had begun a new job as a consultant at a major law firm in Washington.
On a freezing cold day in February 2007, Gray gave his farewell sermon at Bright Hope Baptist Church. Hundreds of parishioners and guests braved bitter cold and jostled for pew space to hear him.
Standing on the same pulpit from which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, the then 65-year-old former congressman read a verse from Joshua. He used the transfer in leadership of the Israelites from Moses to Joshua as a metaphor for the passing of church leadership to Kevin Johnson, a former assistant minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
“We must grow and evolve into what God intended us to become,” Gray shouted, his arms reaching toward the often cheering crowd. “Our new Joshua is well-trained and filled with the holy spirit.”
Gray said afterward that he planned to spend more time with his family, and would remain active with the church as pastor emeritus.