The Gray Way: Herman Gray’s Lifelong Mission

Photos by Lauren Jeziorski

r. Herman Gray is a man of faith. And really, why wouldn't he be?

Over his 37-year association with Children's Hospital of Michigan-from his earliest days as chief pediatric resident through his nine years as the first African-American to serve as its president and CEO, and until recently, executive vice president of pediatric health services for the entire Detroit Medical Center (DMC)-and his decade as a private practice pediatrician in Detroit, Gray witnessed firsthand miracles of infants healed, families renewed, lives transformed. The native Detroiter's home church, Plymouth United Church of Christ, presented him its Martin Luther King Award for service to congregation and community.

So while it sent shock waves through some metro Detroit circles when Gray stepped completely out of health care last September to become president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, it should come as no shock when he gently says, "I was led to this job, I believe that strongly. I'm supposed to be here."

Gray, 65, admits that after a year and a half in DMC corporate corridors, "I was restless. I was too far removed from where the fun was taking place, where the action was, where the kids and families were," he says. "I wasn't actively looking. If something came my way, I might explore it, but I was just trying to be patient. I felt there was something else out there for me."

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Then came a series of events that could be attributed to divine intervention.

The right fit

The search committee looking to replace retiring United Way leader Michael Brennan reached out to Luanne Thomas Ewald, vice president for business development at Children's Hospital, whom Gray handpicked to work with him as CEO there. "I said, 'I have someone better than me,' though I don't know how that's possible," Ewald says with a laugh. "I knew the perfect person to lead that organization. Dr. Gray was my recommendation."

Ewald emailed Gray with a link detailing the job description. Gray didn't open it, and nearly deleted it. "I decided, 'Well, I ain't going to United Way,'" he says. "That doesn't make any sense to me."

But curiosity finally overcame him. He clicked on the link. "A message popped up: 'Thank you for your interest in this position. However, the search is closed,'" Gray recalls. "I wasn't interested anyway. No big deal."

Months passed. Gray received a call from a member of the committee. "He said, 'I want to know why your résumé isn't here,'" Gray remembers. "I said, 'I don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about.' It turns out the search firm they hired dropped the ball or called the wrong place. Either way, they never contacted me, so the committee assumed I wasn't interested."

Cautiously, he agreed to take a meeting at United Way. "There were 17, 18 people there, a big committee," Gray relates. "I sit and wait for the inquisition to start. The chairman stands up and says, 'Thank you for coming, Dr. Gray, and may I say my mentor sends his regards and says he loves you.' At one point, I was pediatrician to his mentor's kids! I'm thinking, 'This is a pretty good start.'"

Parallel purposes

Gray, a University of Michigan Medical School graduate who also holds an MBA from the University of Tennessee, says he understands why some view his accepting United Way's eventual offer as "a big, huge left turn" in his career. He doesn't. Increasingly, he notes, parallels are emerging between a community's overall health and the kinds of social services provided by nonprofit agencies like United Way, particularly in a poverty-drenched city like Detroit.

"If grandma can't get a ride to the doctor because transportation is poor or the family doesn't have a car, it's an impact to health," Gray explains. "If she's living in a cold apartment because her utilities got shut off and nobody knows it, or she's not eating properly, that can have a direct effect on health. In pediatrics, we also know many disorders in adulthood get their start in children. And if a child has a major illness or injury, one parent could lose their job to be with that child, sending the family into a further tailspin of poverty. So the things we see in health care are not unlike the kinds of problems United Way is addressing on a daily basis."

A baby doctor and beyond

Not that it was easy to leave what Gray describes as "a really blessed career, to work in the place where you sort of grew up." The west sider and Cass Tech grad had passion for medicine in his DNA: his father, Jamaican-born Herman Gray Sr., was a pharmacist who came to the United States, earned his medical degree and became a surgeon. "But in the late 1950s, it was very difficult for African-American physicians to get privileges in majority hospitals, a particularly big problem for surgeons because you have to do surgery in a hospital," says Gray. "So in one generation, I was president of a hospital my Dad could not even practice in a generation before."

Yet to this day, Gray cannot forget his father's reaction when he announced his chosen specialty. "He just stared at me," Gray says, smiling. "He had told me the only good doctor was one who could cut. He said, 'A baby doctor?' 'No, Dad, a pediatrician.' 'You're going to be a baby doctor?' He was so profoundly disappointed! Geez, Dad, I'm going to freakin' medical school and graduating, what do you want? I rotated through surgery and thought it was the worst thing ever. My first time in an operating room, I fainted."

Family business

What's more, it was at Children's Hospital where, as an intern, he met and courted his wife, Shirley Mann Gray. For their two adult daughters-Monifa, a civil rights attorney, and Dara, a social worker, both living in Chicago-it was the only place Dad worked when they were young. "I knew he wanted to do something different, and when he said 'United Way,' frankly I had not thought about that," says Shirley Gray, who remains at Children's as administrative director of clinical support services. "But when the opportunity presented itself I said, 'Wow, that's a fit.'

"He creates a warm, engaging atmosphere," she says. "That's the way he is at home, and he was able to do it here at Children's Hospital. He has that ability to make everybody feel like family. When he's talking to you, he sees you. He always has the best interests of the people in mind.

"And although we worked in the same facility for many, many years, we always kept those separations between professional and personal life. People say, 'Girl, you can't ride to work with him anymore.' We never did."

While Gray didn't consult his daughters before making the decision, "he definitely wanted to know our opinions and thoughts," Monifa says. "He is, hands down, the most generous man I know. He genuinely cares about the community and believes each of us must do our part to make this world better. He would often share the quote, 'Service is the rent we pay for living on this earth.' To use the cliché, he not only talks the talk, but walks the walk."

Bold first steps

Now, after a scant few months on the job, Gray says, "I'm still drinking from a firehose" trying to get up to speed on United Way programs like "Bib to Backpack," targeted to children entering kindergarten, or "Meet Up and Eat Up" designed to ensure kids get nutritious meals 365 days a year. "As well as trying to understand the organization and know the people," he says. "It's a passionate, enthusiastic group who are really committed to the mission. I feel very comfortable here."

Still, one of Gray's first acts upon assuming leadership of United Way was to eliminate four top executive positions, including the vice presidents of development and human resources.

"For me, it was an assessment of how efficient the organization was, how nimble we were and how well we made decisions," Gray explains. "The number of vice presidents at United Way when I started, with around 170 employees, was greater than the number of vice presidents I had at Children's with 2,000. I felt we were top heavy, and a smaller group would enable conversation and discussion.

"It was a surprise to some outside the organization that those changes were made in the first three weeks of my arrival. But it's not surprising that when a new CEO comes in, some changes take place. I felt it was important to just get it done, not have it hanging over people's heads. And perhaps we can fund one or two more programs with money saved from salaries.

"If there is one kid out there who is still hungry, one young mother getting evicted from her apartment or one senior citizen living in depression, and we don't know they're out there, then we have lots of work to do."

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