Lieutenant Colonel Leo Gray - Tuskegee Airman - Fort Lauderdale, FL
Lt Col Gray was a rare combination of ordinary and extraordinary. His life truly exemplified the motto “Never Stop Serving”.
After high school Leo fought in WWII with the, now famed, Tuskegee Airmen, whose success in combat was instrumental in the desegregation of the U.S. Air Force and then the entire military.
He went to college on the GI Bill and proceeded, in spite of racist discrimination, to achieve a notably successful civilian career with the U.S Department of Agriculture. He was often the unsung “first Black” to do this or that in the early days of his career, before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
Gray’s civilian career has been little appreciated, while his status as an original Tuskegee Airman fighter pilot eventually brought great acclaim. In between, he labored quietly and constantly to steer both adults and youth toward productivity and success in their chosen fields and in life. His particular passion was to motivate and empower youth to seek careers in aviation and aerospace. He used the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to demonstrate the need for preparedness and excellence, belief in one’s self, and perseverance. Leo took delight in young adults coming up to him to tell how he had impressed them as youth to pursue aviation and/or military careers, or even just to bring their grades up. He considered hearing their feedback to be one of the joyous benefits of living a long life.
He was also gratified to have inspired numerous adults to spread the Tuskegee Airmen story and use it in their work with young people. One of them is Florida’s Valencia Community College videography instructor Jon Timothy Anderson, who, upon meeting Col Gray in 1999 was inspired to create a documentary video, Silver Wings & Civil Rights: The Fight To Fly. It won the “Best Documentary” award at the 2004 Miami International Film Festival. Another is Michael McKenzie of Orlando, FL, who was inspired upon meeting Leo, to found the Vision of Flight, an outstanding program, which introduces students to the world of aeronautics. Moreover, neither last nor least, is Virginia Knudsen, of Oakland Park Florida.
Knudsen. Innspired by Col. Gray’s passion for reaching young people with a love for aviation, Ms. Knudsen was instrumental in starting and directing the Ionosphere Clubd of Flight in Fort Lauderdale. Presently she sponsors and trains a middle school droned flying clb which consistently wins local and regional competitions.
Colonel Gray, with modest aplomb and a ready smile was always ready to serve; to bring some joy to most situations, whether he was speaking softly to a small child or giving an encouraging word to a teenager or producing hearty laughter from a fellow veteran. Ordinary? No. Extroardinary? Maybe. Superordinary? Right on!!!.
Education and Training Accomplishments:
- 1942 Graduated from Boston English High School, an all-boys school, and the first public high school in the United States
- May, 1943 Enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a private, May, 1943
- Graduated from Tuskegee Army Air Field Flying School as a 2nd Lieutenant, Single Engine Pilot
- Served in Italy as a fighter pilot with the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, later to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen; flew 15 missions before the war ended
- Accumulated 750 hours flying time, total
- Remained in USAF Reserve until 1984, completing 41 years military service
- 1950 Earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Massachusetts
- 1952 Earned a Master of Arts degree from the University of Nebraska, where he was inducted into the Gamma Sigma Delta National Agricultural Honor Society
- 1962 – 1964 Did post-graduate work at the University of Maryland
- Participated in ongoing professional development as appropriate during lengthy civilian and military careers
- Completed the following progression of courses as a member of the United States Power Squadron, a nationwide recreational boating organization: America’s Boating Course (ABC), Seamanship, Piloting, Advanced Piloting, Engine Maintenance, Weather, Sail
- Trained for Search and Rescue, as a member of the Fort Lauderdale Composite Squadron, Civil Air Patrol
Professional or Employment History:
- 1953: Agricultural Economics Technical Assistant with the Agricultural Extension Service, University of Massachusetts
- 1954: Agricultural Economist with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- Research Economist with the Economic Research Service
- Secretary, Western Agricultural Economics Research Council
- Recording Secretary, Western Agricultural Experiment Station Directors Association
- Secretary-Treasurer, Western Farm Economics Association
- Staff Economist for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Newcastle Disease Eradication Program in California
- Economic Consultant to the U.S. Agency for International Development in West Africa (Senegal, Mali and Mauritania)
- Director, Office of Program Planning, Food Safety and Quality Service.
- Also founded and served as the first president of the Forum on Blacks in Agriculture.
- 1984: Retired from the USDA with 30 plus years of service and numerous publications and awards to his credit
- 1994 – 2014 Head Usher, Broward Center for the Performing Arts
Advocacy on Behalf of Veterans:
- Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) – “Never Stop Serving” –
- Lifetime member and Broward County Chapter Board member ; whose purpose is to serve the entire military community by leading the nation to honor its commitments to all who serve. MOAA seeks to protect and enhance earned benefits such as military and retirement pay, healthcare coverage, disabled and survivor benefits, spouse and family support.
- Reserve Officers Association Broward County Chapter (ROA), President (at time of death) – ROA was instrumental in adoption of the Reserve Forces Bill of Rights and Vitalization Act. Throughout its history, ROA has advocated for and achieved a long list of improvements and benefits for members of our nation’s Ready Reserve.
- The American Legion – Charter member of Broward County Chapter Post 365 – American Legion played a leading role in drafting and passing of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, otherwise known as, the “GI Bill.” Col. Gray visited the sick at VA hospitals in Florida and around the United States. The Legion is active in issue-oriented United States politics, primarily lobbying on behalf of veterans and service members benefits such as pensions and the Veterans Health Administration
- Air Force Association – Vice President of Broward County Chapter 351 (at time of death)
- Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. – Lifetime member of national organization; Founded The Miami Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (MITAI) in 1991 and served as President for 12 years
- Spearheaded activities commemorating 50th Anniversary of WWII, resulting in Broward County being recognized by the Department of Defense
- Member of Veterans of Foreign Wars
- Member of the P-51 Mustang Pilots Association
- Member of Quiet Birdmen
Civic Activities and Contributions:
- Civil Air Patrol (CAP) – Active member from 1997 to 2006 – served as Public Affairs Officer of the Fort Lauderdale Composite Squadron. Maintained membership even while inactive and enthusiastically recommended and referred youth and their parents to join.
- Active in Fort Lauderdale Power Squadron – participated in local boat shows to educate the public about boating safety; participated in annual waterway clean-ups; attended meetings regularly and took part in other Squadron activities both on land and on the water.
- Lifetime member and Board member of the Nan Knox Boys and Girls Club – Envisioned and co founded the Ionosphere Club of Flight at that club in downtown Fort Lauderdale, FL. Frequently attended to motivate, inspire and mentor the young people there.
- Supported the United Negro College Fund of South Florida
- Gave educational and motivational talks throughout the year, for many, many years to countless public and private school students from elementary to college level in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties, Florida, as well as by invitation around the country
- Gave educational and motivational talks to adults at many churches, civic groups, governmental groups, hobby groups, thus inspiring many adults to pick up and carry on his work.
Awards or Honors:
- 1943 Presidential Unit Citation
- Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster
- Mediterranean Theatre of Operation ribbon with three battle stars
- American Theatre and World War II Victory ribbons
- 1998 Honored by USDA-NRCS in Florida
- 2006 Who’s Who 100 Top Industry Experts
- 2006 Honorary Doctor of Public Service from Tuskegee University
- 2007 Congressional Gold Medal from President George Bush to Tuskegee Airmen
- 2007 Named a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary Foundation of Rotary International
City and County Recognition:
- 2007 Leo R. Gray and Tuskegee Airmen Day, City of Anchorage, AK
- Leo R. Gray Day, City of Dania Beach
- Leo R. Gray Day, City of Fort Lauderdale
- 2012 Lt Col Leo R. Gray Appreciation Day, Broward County Commission
- 2015 Key to Miami-Dade County