Mayor Gray always knew life would get better09/07/2021 12:21AM ● By Steven Hoffman
The Oxford community lost a beloved son when former mayor Harold Gray passed away on Aug. 30 at the age of 92. Harold, affectionately known as “Wimpy,” was born in Oxford on March 4, 1929 to Albert Julius Gray and Mary Elizabeth Walls Gray.
He was many things to many people. He was a man you could always count on getting a smile from. He liked to eat, which he said, is how he got his nickname, “Wimpy.”
“I had it since I was kid,” he said once, grinning from ear to ear. “I got it from Wimpy in the Popeye cartoon. “I liked hamburgers. I still like hamburgers.”
Harold was educated in the Oxford Area School District.
“We were taught black history, but not much at that time,” he said. “We went from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The bell rang twice a day. Recess was my favorite,” he said, laughing. “I would go out and beat the erasers. We were happy.”
He remembered his homeroom teacher, Mrs. Kennard, fondly.
“My brother and I would take her to school on a bobsled when it snowed. It would have been difficult for her to get there,” he said. “I started school in 1937. It was an all-black school, black teachers and principal.”
He attended the Union School for six years, then went on to high school, which was integrated. He remembers having white friends, but also mentioned that there were still stores he couldn’t go into because he was black.
“Some soda shops I couldn’t go in. I always knew things would get better. I didn’t blame people. They were taught that,” Gray said.
Things did get better for Gray, but better only because of the man he was. They got better because he just kept smiling and walking forward.
After high school, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951, and took his basic training at Ft. Meade in Maryland. He served actively in Korea for 13 months and was honorably discharged with the rank of Corporal in 1953. That was followed by eight more years in the military reserves.
In his interview for the Oxford Area Historical Association, he spoke about his time in Korea. The Korean War is often called the forgotten war, but Gray remembered it as if it was yesterday.
“It was the worst time in my life,” he said. “I was scared going to Korea. It was cold in the winter. The winter around here was like summer compared to Korea. We had to eat in the cold. We would sit on the bank outside and eat. I was with the 75th artillery group. We had to dig five-foot deep trails in the ice with pickaxes. Summers were hot. I was more afraid of the mosquitoes than the enemy. We got hit a few times. Thank God we came out of it.”
Gray explained that the Army had just gotten integrated a few years before he was drafted.
“A lot of the troops were from the south. Some white soldiers apologized for the way they felt about blacks. They realized we were all the same. They were just like my brothers. I learned to accept it,” he said. “I knew they were taught that.”
More than once in the interview Gray repeated the statement, “I knew things would get better.”
“I always worked,” he said. “I worked in restaurants washing dishes. In the winter my brothers and I would shovel snow, and in the summer time we would help haul hay, and pick tomatoes. We helped my mom and dad and there was always plenty of food.”
He also worked at a fertilizer mill on South Street, mixing fertilizer. When he came out of the military, it didn’t take him long to find a job.
His priorities changed when he married Edith L. Havelow. They celebrated their 68th anniversary on Feb. 15 of this year. And from that union they were blessed with six children.
When asked how he got involved in law enforcement, Gray was happy to talk about that.
Prior to joining the Oxford police force in 1965, after successfully completing all the necessary training courses, Harold worked for several years at Coates’ Body Shop in Oxford and for the body shop owned by Doug Lambert in Coatesville.
“I went to work at Coates Body Shop as a painter,” he explained. “Count Nelson was the first black police officer back then. Someone asked me why I didn’t apply for a job with the police. I had to take the Civil Service test. I scored higher than anyone and because I was in the military that gave me points, so I got the job. I took the physical and passed. I made $4,000 a year. I got married, so I painted cars during the day and worked as a cop at night. I was making more money painting cars than working as a police officer. I started working part time as an officer on the weekends and worked painting cars through the week.”
When Mayor Frances Maule asked him to come back full-time he went. The borough hired more police.
Gray remembered, “I needed benefits, and insurance. I had kids. They started paying decent money, in the 1970s.”
Gray retired in 1992 after 27 years as a policeman and was encouraged to run for mayor.
Gray, a lifelong resident of Oxford, was sworn in as the first African-American Mayor of Oxford Borough in 1993. Earning great respect from the community, he was re-elected for two more terms.
“When I retired, I got tired of watching TV,” he explained. “I was asked to run for mayor. One guy told me I had to be Republican to get that job in Oxford. I was registered as a Democrat. Glenn Elters and Jim Sumner helped me. We went door to door. I knocked on a lot of doors. I won by a landslide. It surprised me. I was the first black mayor and I was a Democrat and 75 percent of the people that voted for me were Republican.”
He expressed in later years that his greatest accomplishment as mayor, was to get the Veterans’ Memorial erected in the Oxford Park.
“I called John Roberts—he was the finance man at the American Legion,” he explained. “I told him I had a dream about the monument and explained how I wanted it. Roberts made a few changes and took it to Paul Risk. I said this is what we are going to do. It was built just the way I dreamed it.”
Among his duties as mayor, he was privileged to officiate for 45 weddings and present numerous citations on behalf of the borough.
“I loved doing weddings, and eating those great meals afterwards,” he said.
When he finally retired, a retirement banquet was held in his honor at the Oxford Fire Hall. He would always be known as Mayor Gray, even after he retired. People would often ride by his home and stop and talk to him as he sat on his front porch. But Gray didn’t just go off and fade into the sunset yet. He had more work to do.
While Gray was a police officer, Jim Campbell asked him if he would be the chairman for the Salvation Army in the area.
Gray explained, “I said I would. That was in 1965. I started that first winter ringing the bell for them in front of the Acme. I was there during rain and snow. I had trouble getting people to help. In later years, I did two Wawas, and then I’d go to Walmart. I enjoyed doing it.” Following his retirement from the police department, he continued to chair the Salvation Army for 30 years.
Gray was a member of the Fraternal Order of Police and the State Mayors Association. He was the commander of the Roy W. Gibson American Legion Post 535 for 30 years and as such was involved in numerous Memorial Day Parades.
He was also on the boards of Southern Chester County Medical Center, the Department of Aging of West Chester, the Oxford Senior Center, and Act 101 of Lincoln University while in office as mayor.
For a time, Gray was assistant Boy Scout Master of Troop 55, the only African-American Boy Scout troop of Oxford, and a member of Mt. Hebron University Masonic Lodge #34, earning the 32nd degree. He was ordained as an elder of Second Presbyterian Church in 1959 (now Shiloh P.C.), served as treasurer, superintendent of Sunday School, and became a trustee in 1962. Also, he was Clerk of Session until 1965, and worship leader many times in the absence of a full-time pastor.
When asked about church Gray said, “My wife was more involved than I was. I wanted to make sure our children were involved with church. I didn’t care what religion they were involved in, but I wanted them to know there was only one God,” he said. “I enjoyed fellowship, but I never sang in the choir. I couldn’t sing.”
In honor of his community service, hard work, determination, commitment and compassionate care for others, Gray received many certificates, awards, citations and congratulatory letters from organizations including the American Legion, the West Chester NAACP, the American Heart Association, the Oxford Senior Center, the Second Presbyterian Church of Oxford (Shiloh), Oxford Area School District, and the Oxford Citizen Recognition Award. Also, he was awarded citations from the Chester County Commissioners for service and dedication; and citations with appreciation from both the United States Army Freedom Team and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for Korean War Heroes.
On the day that Gray passed away, Oxford Police Detective Chris Coverly released a statement that read:
It is with the deepest sadness and a profound sense of loss that the Oxford Borough Police Department announces the loss of retired Officer Harold “Wimpy” Gray. Officer Gray’s end of watch came on August 30th, 2021. Officer Gray served the citizens and visitors of Oxford Borough as a patrol officer. After his retirement, Officer Gray continued to serve his community as the Mayor of Oxford Borough from 1994 through 2005. Most local residents remember Mayor Gray for spending decades outside our local grocery stores, ringing the bell and collecting donations for the Salvation Army. Mayor Gray always had a great story to tell and loved spending time with his family. His bright, inviting smile and warm personality will be greatly missed.
Gray loved this community, he loved his family and he left this world a better place.
His favorite comment is a parting gift and will be a continuing challenge to all: “I always knew things would get better.”
Family and friends are welcome to attend a Celebration of Life and Homegoing Service at the Oxford Presbyterian Church, Six Pine Street in Oxford on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 11 a.m. There will be a viewing from 9:00 A.M. until the time of service. (Please wear a mask.).
(Reporter’s note: I need to give a special thank you to the Oxford Area Historical Association for the generous assistance in allowing me to view their interview with Mayor Harold “Wimpy” Gray. As the reporter writing this story and watching Gray’s oral history interview on a computer, OAHA provided me some closure. I knew Mayor Gray, too. Through his work as a police officer and mayor, he was a vital part of the village that helped me raise my children. My oldest grandson looked up to Mayor Gray and rang the bell for the Salvation Army because of him. For many years, he just assumed Mayor Gray was and always would be Mayor of Oxford. When I worked for the Borough, I was so honored and so thankful to work with Gray. He shared his valuable knowledge with me. He was beyond respected; Mayor Gray was loved, and loved deeply by everyone that ever spent a minute with him.
The interview is just a small part of their oral history project. Beyond giving me an opportunity to view Mayor Gray speaking about his amazing life, the Historical Association allowed me to hear his voice one more time. For anyone interested in volunteering for OAHA or visiting them, please visit their website at: https://www.oxfordhistorical.org. A special thank you to Gail and Stephen Roberts for taking all of my phone calls, and for being so accommodating.