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magazine home > archives > spring 2001 > features

Considered one of the nation's top journalists, Jerry Gray has enjoyed a sparkling career that has taken him from Memphis to the far reaches of the world. Now a writer for The New York Times, he attributes much of his success to the education he received at The U of M.

Making Headlines
by Kristen Epler

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
  Journalist 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.

From 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 says.

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.

Breaking News

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 experience.

"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."

War Stories

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 Small Print

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."

All 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 for this.'

"In the end, I think they are going to have to wheel me out of the newsroom," Gray says, chuckling.

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