Jerry Gray's career has taken him into the bowels of war,
transported him into the world's bloodiest coups and caused
him to stare into the twisted faces of famine victims. But
whether he's standing in the midst of a raucous Ku Klux Klan
rally or sitting in the quiet office of an American president,
Gray ('75) relies on skills he learned in classrooms at The
University of Memphis.
Jerry Gray ('75) counts the death of Elvis Presley and
its aftermath, Newt Gingrich and the 1995-96 massacre
in Rwanda as his most memorable assignments
In 1968, the Greenwood, Miss., native entered what was then
Memphis State University in hopes of pursuing a
biology degree and attending medical school. He enrolled
in a few journalism classes to learn the basic skills needed
for publishing medical papers. But a University of Memphis
journalism professor turned his career plans topsy-turvy.
Leon Long, a professor and adviser to the journalism laboratory
newspaper, The Memphis Statesman, was an exacting taskmaster.
"He demanded quality, and he threw people off staff when he
didn't get it, even though it was a required class," recalls
Gray. "He was moody and unsmiling, but he was passionate to
the point of excess. A tyrant given to long, loud and profane
outbursts, he set the standards, and the standards were high.
He still ranks as the toughest editor I've ever had." When
Gray learned that he could survive Long's tirades while maintaining
his sanity and integrity, he realized that he could, and would,
survive any journalistic challenge.
A to Z
Gray gained his first professional reporting experience at
the Memphis bureau of the Associated Press under the instruction
of Les Seago (BLS '96, MA '00), the late U of M research reporter.
Seago began by assigning Gray to cover the aftermath of the
1960's civil rights movement as well as other signs of the
tumultuous times. "Together Les and I survived police strikes,
teacher strikes, 6 p.m. curfews and Ku Klux Klan rallies,"
Gray recalls. "It was a crazy time."
His first AP assignment was to cover a Klan rally in Memphis,
an experience that taught him a lesson on objectivity that
he shares when teaching advanced reporting classes at the
State University of New Jersey, Rutgers-Newark. "The biggest
daily challenge facing a journalist is to be fair," Gray tells
his students. "Every person has a bias. Do you think I had
one as an African-American male going into a Klan rally? Of
course I did. But was I fair in my reporting of it? Yes.
"If you can't be fair, then you've crossed the line," Gray
Gray's reputation for objectivity landed him interviews with
former senators Bob Dole and Pete Domenici, as well as with
such world leaders as Mengistu Haile Mariam, former military
ruler of Ethiopia; former President Bill Clinton; and South
Africa's Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, and President, Nelson Mandela.
After working for the AP in Memphis, Gray moved to its foreign
desk in New York, where he covered the United Nations. In
March of 1985, his career took him to Nairobi, Kenya, where
he worked for almost four years. As the East, South and Central
Africa AP bureau chief, Gray covered 25 African countries
and the Indian Ocean Islands before being transferred back
to New York. In 1991, he moved to The New York Times,
where he covered politics, the courts and elections before
he was named bureau chief over reporters covering state houses
in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Gray has no problem identifying his most memorable assignments.
"I can narrow it down to the top three - the death of Elvis
Presley and its aftermath, Newt Gingrich and the 1995-96 massacre
in Rwanda." He always refers to Presley's death as "covering
the life, death and annual resurrection of Elvis." The stint
with Gingrich began the day the politician began his tenure
as speaker of the house. From that moment until the politician's
resignation, Gingrich and Gray were inseparable. "I found
him to be a mysterious and curious person," says Gray, who
once accompanied Gingrich on a dinosaur dig. But perhaps the
most memorable and life altering story Gray has covered in
his 26 years has been the Rwanda massacre.
One day in 1996, Gray dropped his wife off at the airport
and then swung by The New York Times office. As soon
as he stepped inside, he saw the foreign desk editor pacing
the floor. When the editor saw Gray, he smacked his head and
said, "Oh, I didn't think about sending you." A few hours
later, Gray was on his way to Rwanda.
"I remember calling my wife in California from Paris. I had
just seen her earlier that day, and now here I was in Paris
on my way to Africa again," he says. "They packed me up so
quickly that I was not allowed to go home. They had me get
a new passport, tents and sleeping bags and handed me $60
in cash. Thirty-six hours after leaving New York, I found
myself in a famine camp with corpses up to my waist." The
seven-week assignment was Gray's most unsettling journalistic
"It was so disconcerting as a journalist," he says. "You
literally had bodies stacked up like firewood. It was disquieting
because I got there and was able to perform immediately. You'd
like to think that you wouldn't be able to turn off your heart
to that, but you had to be able to perform and do a job."
Gray credits his ability to do that to his experience at The
University of Memphis.
Even though this was the most complex assignment he had
tackled, he knew that following the basics he learned in journalism
school would get him through. "I didn't lose it until I stepped
into the safe confines of my home in Princeton where I saw
my children and thanked God they would never find themselves
in the situation many of those children found themselves in,"
Gray says. "That's when I lost it emotionally. It was the
most physically, emotionally and psychologically challenging
job I've ever done."
Much of Gray's career has been spent covering wars, coups
and famines. "I guess that was to be expected, considering
the nature of the region I was in," he says.
Gray was the man on the scene when Uganda underwent three
changes in government in nine months followed by two more
coups in a week. He saw the ugly face of war in Ethiopia,
Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan, among others. Once Gray even found
himself stranded for six days in the Sudan after his transportation
broke down. "I vividly remember boiling water from mud puddles
to drink, falling asleep to the roar of lions and waking up
to find the camp trampled by elephant herds," he says.
But the tragedy Gray covered in Africa became personalized
when he lost dear friends in the 1993 massacre in Somalia.
Four journalists were stoned, knifed and beaten to death by
an angry mob in the streets of Mogadishu. Three of the men
killed had been colleagues and close friends of Gray's. "I've
lost a lot of friends who were in the same place as I was,
so I guess it's better to be lucky rather than smart," Gray
says. "It just comes down to luck sometimes."
The lifestyle accompanying the profession Gray has chosen
can pose a challenge to one's personal life as well. "I admire
and respect anybody who is married to a journalist," Gray
says. "Journalists tend to have a terrible track record in
relationships and marriages."
Yet, the Grays have found their own method of making it work.
Gray met his wife, Charlette, in Greenwood, Miss., in the
third grade. The couple's 26 years of marriage have not come
without serious dedication and work. "My wife is special,"
Gray says. "I never know when I am going to be home for dinner.
It makes for an interesting situation."
As for the Grays' children, Kierstin, 21, and Jordan, 16,
Gray says the only noticeable effects of an upbringing in
the daily demands of his journalism career have been their
strong senses of independence. "Sometimes they are more grown
up than I had hoped," Gray says, "but they are great kids.
We really are lucky."
the Right Moves
Gray says he would not change anything about his career if
he had the opportunity. "I never regret what I do," Gray says.
"It's all about moving, growing and meeting new challenges."
That positive outlook has fortified Gray. Now in his new
position at The New York Times as editor of the Continuous
News Department, he will receive an opportunity to prove himself
willing and capable again. "It will be my job to help create
a 24-hour news station in the newsroom making news reporters
and newscasters one and the same," Gray says.
Another challenge Gray vows to conquer will be to return
to his alma mater and finish what he started. Just two courses
shy of his journalism degree, he plans to one day take time
from his career to complete a bachelor's degree. He still
considers The University of Memphis a treasure and resource.
Awarded the 1993 U of M Outstanding Journalism Alumni Award
for excellence in journalism, he credits the University for
uniting him with his career. "The U of M certainly put a stamp
on me, and I'm better for it," Gray says.
Gray has devoted his life to a career that he says has shaped
and molded him. "There have been many days when I have said
to myself, 'I don't get paid enough for this,' but there are
millions of days where I wake up and say, 'And I get paid
"In the end, I think they are going to have to wheel me
out of the newsroom," Gray says, chuckling.