(Editor’s Note: Ken Gray first came to West Virginia University as a law student, then after a distinguished career in the military, returned as vice president of student affairs where he spent 17 years helping make this University a student-oriented institution. The story of his experience is the latest in an occasional series of remembrances that comprise The Heritage Project, a collection of every voice and every witness that makes up the legacy of every Mountaineer.)
Ken Gray almost didn’t find a place to stay in Morgantown.
Gray remembers his first encounters with the place he’d call home and eventually serve as a long-standing advocate for West Virginia University students.
In the 1960s, Morgantown, and the rest of the nation, for that matter, was hardly inclusive. Segregation lingered in pockets of the U.S. as the Civil Rights movement began chipping away at those walls.
Gray, an African-American, knew all about it. He grew up in the rural, coal-mining town of Excelsior, McDowell County, and went to segregated schools until enrolling at West Virginia State University near Charleston.
After earning a political science degree there, he set his sights on the WVU College of Law.
Gray was accepted into the law school and his wife, Carolyn, landed a teaching job at Flatts Elementary School (in the Suncrest area). The couple purchased a mobile home for their move to Morgantown but soon faced a dilemma: None of the mobile home parks would let them stay.
“It was a tough, tough first couple of years (in Morgantown),” Gray recently recalled. “Behind my wife’s elementary school was a mobile home park. I thought, ‘That would be great if we could park our mobile home there.’ My wife could walk to school.
“I asked the owner and he explained that he couldn’t do it because he would lose business.”
The owner, however, didn’t turn them away harshly. He tried to help. So he gave Gray the name and phone number of another mobile home park owner, who welcomed the couple onto his lot.
“Even though the first guy turned us away to preserve his livelihood, he didn’t have to lead us to the other mobile home park,” Gray said. “He didn’t have to do that. But it’s something we appreciated after all these years.”
Being a young African-American couple in the 1960s had its rough patches, but for the Grays, they ultimately found warmth in the Morgantown and the WVU community.
Gray was the only black student in the College of Law from 1966-1969.
“That first semester was a tremendous challenge, but the College of Law became a sanctuary for me,” he said. “We were a close-knit group. The folks there from the staff to the faculty to my classmates embraced us. I made wonderful friends that I still have to this day.”
Gray became the third black student to graduate from the College of Law. That opened the doors to the world, literally, for Gray.
He entered into active duty in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the military took him all across the globe from the Pentagon to Europe to Vietnam. And he would make history by becoming the first and only African-American general officer in the history of the Army JAG Corps since its creation in 1775.
After an esteemed military career, Gray decided it was time to give back to the place that touched his heart. He came home.
In 1997, Gray was named vice president for student affairs at WVU. His first action? The General dropped the military title.
“I didn’t want anyone calling me ‘general’ or feel like I’m in a command role,” he said. “This is a collegial atmosphere, and some people were leery of what I was going to be like. I put them all at ease.”
Over Gray’s 17-year-tenure at WVU, he helped launched several successful student-centered programs and also played a part in increasing enrollment and enhancing the overall student experience.
With the support of then-President David Hardesty, Gray spearheaded WVUp All Night, one of the first late-night alternative programs for college students in the country.
“When I got here, I kept hearing how students didn’t have anything to do on weekends,” he said. “They’d either stay in their rooms, go home or go to the bars.”
Gray and university leaders, including the student body, established a safer weekend alternative for students with on-campus activities every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.
WVUp All Night received national acclaim and was featured on “Good Morning America.”
Gray is also credited for taking the lead on FallFest, the popular welcome-back concert and celebration held at the beginning of each fall semester.
But, just like the quiet professional he was throughout his military career, Gray doesn’t want to take the credit.
“At every step of the way, I’ve had help, whether from my parents, my wife, my teachers, my mentors, the students or my colleagues,” he said.
Gray retired from WVU in 2014. He still resides in Morgantown a place where he and his wife almost didn’t catch a break. It, ultimately, however, gave him opportunity and a lifetime of achievement and happiness.
“It was a different time in our country when we first came here,” Gray said. “It’s progressed so much. We still have a ways to go.
“I never dreamed about becoming a general or a vice president at WVU. I did dream about having a good job and being successful. I did that, and I got to do what I wanted to do.”
Story by Jake Stump
Video by Scott Lituchy
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