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Grays feted in style by MIT friends

The MIT community celebrated a 47-year love affair with Paul and Priscilla Gray by throwing a party to remember and naming the walkway that runs from Ames and Amherst Streets to the Infinite Corridor the "Gray Way."

Dr. Gray, 65, who was the Institute's 14th president from 1980-90, will step down as chairman of the Corporation on July 1 but will continue to teach in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He came to MIT in 1950 as a freshman from Livingston, NJ, and left only to serve a two-year hitch in the US Army Signal Corps.

Walker Memorial was gussied up with balloons, daffodils and wildflowers for the gala last Tuesday (April 8). The Jay Keyser Intermission Trio Plus (drums, bass, trombone, horn, banjo and clarinet) serenaded the crowd of about 450 faculty, staff, students and friends.

While the guests feasted on hors d'oeurves and sipped champagne and other beverages, highlights of Dr. Gray's MIT career flashed overhead, in still photographs and on tape, providing a mini-history of post-World War II MIT.

The audience saw Dr. Gray gripping, grinning, lecturing, presiding, laughing, singing, lecturing, thinking, listening, partying and proclaiming. At various times, he was wearing gowns, caps, dress suits, celebratory T-shirts and MIT sweatshirts. There was even one image of him wearing a shirt and tie while bowling.

He stood with MIT icons named Stratton, Killian, Wiesner, Johnson and Vest, among others. He presided at Commencements, joked with cheerleaders, and strode across campus hand-in-hand with the woman he married in June 1955, their mutual affection visible to the world.

By the time the party ended, Dr. Gray had tapped his left foot to the student group the Chorallaries' a cappella version of "Rubber Ducky," a quirky favorite song, and was sporting an earring, courtesy of his successor, President Charles M. Vest.

Noting that modern students were different from those who faced Dr. Gray during his earlier teaching career, Dr. Vest offered the earring as an example of the changing styles on campus. "It's called body wear," he said. "You can wear it in your nose, your navel, your lips, tongue or ears. We expect you to wear it."

A moment later, Dr. Gray slipped it onto his left earlobe.

Others who paid tribute to the Grays and offered trinkets were Francis E. Low, former provost; Ombudsperson Mary P. Rowe; Arthur C. Smith, former dean for undergraduate and student affairs; Mary Morrissey, retired special events director; Senior Vice President William R. Dickson; Keith Bevans (SB '96), whose advisor was Dr. Gray; Kathryn A. Willmore, executive assistant to the president, and Dr. Vest's wife, Rebecca.

Dr. Low recalled Dr. Gray telling this allegorical story as tough negotiations for the Whitehead Institute went down to the wire: A petrified woman was in the dentist's chair, fearfully anticipating contact with the drill. Suddenly, the dentist backed away and said, "Madam, I believe you're holding my testicles." She replied, "Yes doctor. And we're not going to hurt each other, are we?"

"And we didn't," said Dr. Low, noting that the negotiations ended with the MIT-Whitehead partnership consummated in 1982.

Dr. Rowe thanked Mrs. Gray for being a "sister, aunt, parent and grandparent to us all." She also recalled Dr. Gray's response to a male faculty member who thought pregnant women should be barred from teaching on the grounds that they distracted the students.

Ever the scientist, she said, Dr. Gray formulated this test: When a professor's nose and toes cannot touch a wall simultaneously, it is time to stop teaching. "The only problem," she recalled Dr. Gray saying, "is that I'm afraid we'll lose more men than women."

Mr. Dickson recalled an early encounter with the young upperclassman during an ROTC session shortly after the vice president matriculated in 1952. "There was this guy with a funny little cap on, out front [of the armory] who started yelling," Mr. Dickson recalled. "He's been yelling at me ever since."

Facing Paul and Priscilla Gray, Ms. Willmore said, "Seeing you walk across campus together, holding hands, reminds us that MIT can be a place of trust, decency and caring, as well as excellence."

Ms. Willmore noted that Dr. Gray had followed the advice he offered 1980 graduates: Go through life with "an open mind, an honest intellect and a courageous and compassionate heart."

"We are all the better for it," she said. "We have been fortunate in these two, and luckily, they'll still be around here, with a little time off for good behavior."

While a picture of the freshly minted Gray Way plaque flashed overhead, Dr. Vest said, "We wish you much luck and many more years of happy strolling."

Then it was time for the guests of honor.

"It's been a lovely party," said Mrs. Gray. "You're all very wonderful." Dr. Gray added, "I'm not often speechless, but this may be one of those times." The couple then toasted the audience with champagne. The love affair continues.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 1997.

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