Remembering John Gray

In its October 23, 2012 issue, the Oregonian editorial board saluted the life and legacy of John Gray, a businessman, developer, and philanthropist who recognized that Oregon succeeds through balance and fairness, and who gave so much of his own time, energy, and profits to support that vision.

Mr. Gray, a founding member of 1000 Friends, died October 19 at age 93.

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It was probably inevitable, in a place with spectacular territory along its coast, in its high desert and in the Columbia Gorge, that somebody would build resorts in Oregon. It was the massive, game-changing inspiration of developer John Gray, who died Friday in Portland at 93, to build Oregon resorts. 

And to use so much of the proceeds to build a better Oregon. 

In a business where the core landscaping strategy is often to call in the bulldozers and start over, it was John Gray's insight -- in Salishan, in Sunriver and across the Columbia at Skamania Lodge -- to work with the surroundings, to consider them a part of the project's appeal. "I would say you want to be sensitive to the landform and environment in which you're planning to build," Gray explained, "make it blend in as much as you can with the local environment and local needs." 

Following that thinking, Gray helped create an Oregon attitude, to treat your location as a part of your identity, not just a mailing address. Beyond the construction, it was an attitude he advanced as a founder of the conservationist group 1000 Friends of Oregon. 

Gray's own roots here were deep, born in Ontario and raised in Monroe in Benton County. Returning from World War II, he was hugely successful in a particularly traditional Oregon business: chain saws, at Omark Industries. Then he moved into development, shaping the design of both his properties and the state. 

With the success of his three major resorts, along with other projects, Gray became a prominent land-use figure and advocate, a supporter of efforts such as Measure 49 in 2007. "Intelligent land-use planning doesn't curtail development," Gray said at the time. "It chooses where it should go." Gray, and the Gray Family Fund, helped finance studies of the effects of Oregon's approach, defending it against charges of value destruction. 

But John Gray left his mark on the landscape of Oregon in many other ways. He spent 45 years as a trustee of Reed College, many of those as chairman of the board, strengthening and shaping the college's position, and supported other local institutions from the Portland Art Museum to the emerging South Waterfront affordable housing development to be called Gray's Landing. Recently, he gave $5 million to the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University and $2 million to Habitat for Humanity for Oregon construction. 

A year ago, reporter Tom Hallman of The Oregonian wrote of Gray's lunch visit to the Community Transitional School in Northeast Portland. Gray went there to see how the school was using a new classroom he'd paid for, after he'd called to see if there was anything the school needed. 

" 'Turned out nicely,' he said. 'It will help these children.' 

"He walked to a window to look at kids playing during recess. 

"'They need space,' he said. 'I'm glad they have it.'" 

Over a multidecade career, John Gray helped define and develop Oregon's attitude toward its space. 

And to helping Oregonians get what they need. 

For another interesting perspective on Mr. Gray and his impact on other people, read this personal account by philanthropist Ashley Campion.