An Obligation to Serve

By Brad McEwen

There’s an old saying about the things that come from the mouths of babes. That those “things” often hold simple truths that we adults tend to forget about as we move through our increasingly busy lives. It’s somewhat cliché for certain, but like the rest of them, there’s a good bit of truth there.

Such was the case for retired Marine Lt. Col. and current City of Albany Facilities Director Don Gray not too long after he and his family—wife Robin and two children, Alesha and Jackie—relocated to Albany after he took a position as Deputy Director of the Maintenance Management Center at Marine Corps Logistics Command at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany.

As Don explained during an enlightening and highly entertaining Beyond the Bank interview, the Houston area native and his family had recently relocated to Albany after years living abroad in places like Okinawa and Stuttgart, and were struggling to get acclimated to the new community they didn’t know much about—other than what Don would later tell me they should likely ignored on the internet.

It was against that backdrop that one Saturday, Don and his son Jackie were doing their usual Saturday “man time,” getting hair cuts and going to Lowe’s for honey-do list supplies, when the younger Gray asked a simple question that floored his father. And ultimately set him on his current path of being a tireless champion for the Albany community he’s come to love.

“My son said, ‘you know dad…’” Don began. “‘You know, everywhere we’ve lived, I’ve seen you and mom just really involved in the community and in the church and just doing stuff. And I hear the stuff y’all are saying now and, well dad, what are you guys doing here? Because I remember you’ve always raised us to be involved. So, what are you doing?’

“Man, that hit me,” Don said flatly. “That hit me like a ton of bricks. And the very next Monday I went over to the Chamber of Commerce and I met Mary Bickerstaff, and I started grabbing flyers. I said, ‘Okay. Well, what’s going on here? Because as a dad, I can’t have my son walking around with that image.

“I mean you’ve got to kill it. I mean you can walk around and say what you want, but the truth is, as the saying goes, more is caught than taught. And I wanted to make sure he was catching the right things from me. And at that point, I just started looking for opportunities to make a difference and try to get involved and do something positive. You change your mindset and you can change the world.”

And, in what seems to be a theme throughout his life, Don didn’t just “get involved.” Rather, he thrust himself into service work, bound and determined to show his children and his new community how much he valued having a chance to do for others what was once done for him.

Although he didn’t really see it at the time, looking back on his childhood, Don said the seeds for his heart for service we planted years ago, back when his parents were working multiple jobs to help pull the family out of poverty and provide better opportunities for the next generation.

“My father’s a retired educator, retired vice principal, school counselor,” Don explained. “My dad was always killing it. I mean, he’s a Silver Beaver Boy Scout recipient. He was just always doing something. And when I say, ‘always doing something,’ you have to understand that if you were to go to Houston, Texas and go to places called the Fifth and Third Wards, these are not nice places.

“But that’s where the Boy Scout troop was. We didn’t have uniforms. It was just, ‘Hey, wear the right color t-shirt and we’ll gather together.’ And every now and then, we could save up enough money to go to Camp Strake outside Houston. And it was like, ‘Okay, now you’ve been exposed to camping. Now you’ve learned how to swim, or tried to learn how to swim. Now you’ve rode in a canoe.’

“It was all about showing people that maybe thought, ‘well, this is my neighborhood and this is just my small world,’ that ‘no, here’s another world out here.’ And my grandfather was the same way.”

In fact, Don said, aside from his father, it was his maternal grandfather Jackie Gibson who had the biggest impact on the young boy, and later man, growing up in Texas.

From his grandfather, Don said, he first learned many of the concepts that would later attract him to the Marine Corps—things like commitment, honor, courage, integrity.

“That man was my hero,” Don said. “He taught me everything I know as far as how to be a man. He and my own father growing up.”

Don credits their attitudes, and their willingness to work hard, with being the things that made growing up in a lower-income area just a little easier.

“We had lots of issues,” Don said of that time. “We were poor. Honestly, I didn’t know we were poor until I got to high school and I started seeing how some other guys lived, because as a kid you think everybody lives the same way you do.

“But to me, that’s a testament that I never knew I was poor. Because somehow, I always had what I needed; always had shoes, always had something to wear.”

While today Don can clearly see the sacrifices his family made to give him greater opportunities—including working multiple jobs to pay for Don to attend a private school—that wasn’t always the case in the moment.

“Now understand, there was a point where my dad and mine’s relationship wasn’t very tight,” Don explained with just a hint of regret as he looked back at that time through the eyes of the husband and father he is now. “Now I realize with the level of income that he and mom were operating of off, the man had to work three jobs in order to make sure I went to that private school in Houston. That’s why he wasn’t spending money on stuff like other dads.

“My buddies were always hunting and fishing with their dads. My dad’s not hunting and fishing with me. Well, now I realize what an amazing man he was. He’s working two and three jobs and then he’s still volunteering in the community, all because he wanted to make sure I got an educational experience at a young age that he never had a chance to get.

“If you can’t take that and at some point—if you’ve had some level of success in your life—look back and go, ‘Hey, I’m obligated to do the same, I’m obligated to pass it forward or reach back and help somebody,’ something is wrong. You just have got to do that.”

That attitude was further solidified by others he’s met along his life’s journey—like the coach that got young Don interested in athletics and kick-started his lifelong joy of being active and physical.

“A guy named Jim Schwarzbach saw me sitting around,” Don said. “This was before I had a car and I’d be waiting on my dad to come pick me up.

“I remember Coach Schwarzbach approached me and said, ‘Don, you’re always here so you might as well use that time. It looks like you do a little homework and you just kind of sit there and watch. Have you ever thought about going out for cross country?’ I was like, ‘hey coach I don’t know how to ski.’ I mean I didn’t even know what cross country was.

“But that’s how athletics kind of really started.”

Don’s love of being physical would eventually lead him to college, but after having just a little too much fun and not focusing enough on his studies at Norfolk State University in Virginia, it wasn’t long before Don was back home.

Even though he had enrolled at his parents’ alma mater, Prairie View A&M, it wasn’t long before his lack of motivation led to a run in with this dad.

“I had a small, part-time job at a certain point,” Don shared. “And my dad said, ‘So what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to go to work in a couple of hours.’ And he goes, ‘No. What are you going to do?’ And he made it clear, ‘Son, you can always come home, but in order to come home, you have to go somewhere.”

Don said that around that same time, his best friend came home for a visit after having joined the Marine Corps.

“My best friend, Mr. Reginald Mason,” Don said. “He talked to me about it. And what really attracted me were the values, the honor, the courage, the commitment. And the fact that, ‘so you’re telling me I can get paid to run around outside and be involved in physical things?’”

The thought of what his days might look like in the Marine Corps was a powerful draw for the young Don, but even at that point, he wasn’t really considering the Corps as a lifetime career. In fact, as Don put it, he ended up being a career Marine because he failed at his first choice.

“I’ve failed at a lot of things in my life,’” Don said with a laugh. “My plan when I joined the Marine Corps was to enlist as a cook. My whole thing was, I wanted to learn how to cook for large groups of people, maybe work in a chow hall or something. And then, I was going to come home and buy a piece of property or something to have a little juke joint where I could sell you a bucket of beer and make you some barbeque or gumbo. That was my goal in life.

“That changed in boot camp.”

Don said that in boot camp, fresh Marines are exposed to various aspects of jobs within the Corps and ultimately given an opportunity to sort of choose an avenue to continue along during their enlistment. And for the outdoors-loving, physically gifted Texan, there was really only one choice.

“I knew I was going to graduate from the Honor Men series and they give you a choice of military occupational specialty, M-O-S,” Don explained. “At that point, I was infantry and I had three or four folks come talk to me and they said, ‘Okay are you sure?’ You’re not a rocket scientist, so there’s some M-O-S-es that are off the board, but most people don’t just choose infantry.’

“I said, ‘No, I’m infantry.’”

While that choice certainly provided Don with the physicality he craved, he said it also taught him an important life lesson that has guided every stop since—from working in logistics on bases around the world, working for a defense contractor following his retirement from MCLB, and in his current roles as an active community volunteer and head of Albany’s facilities group.

“More importantly, infantry gave me confidence,” Don continued. “I understand the concept that you have to work with a team in order to be successful.

“You know how the infantry operates. Nobody can do it themselves. It’s all about a team effort, very much like any sort of athletic team, whether it be football, baseball—which I’m very passionate about—or any type of team sport. You can have a superstar there, but it’s about the team. And that attracted me to the Marine Corps.”

Of course, once in the Corps, Don said he continued to have important influences helping to guide him along and provide wisdom and counsel as he continued to advance in his career.

While there’s no denying Don’s own drive and determination to succeed at whatever task was placed in front of him has had a lot to do with his success, he readily admits that he wasn’t always focusing on what material change would come to his life next.

For Don, every day, and every task, is an opportunity to serve and to get better at something. But that focus on the now can often come at the expense of thinking about the future, as it took him being in the Corps for more than a decade to really consider making his service a career decision.

“I was a captain and had just completed a recruiting tour and I was a student at Fort Lee at the Advanced Logistics Officer’s School,” Don explained. “As part of the orientation, an Army general was giving a welcoming speech and he put out something that probably should have been obvious.

“He stated, ‘If you are in this course, this course you are about to start, if you’re not going to stay, or you don’t want to make a career of it, you should probably make that decision right after you complete this course.’ Because the majority of folks that were in this course at this point, probably had 13 to 15 years of service already.

“I had never really thought of it until that point because my focus had always just been to try and be good at what I’m doing right now, where I am right now. I thought that as long as you’re getting promoted and advanced, and, quite frankly, having fun and being able to do things in the communities where you are, that was good. At that point, I had about 13, 14 years in and I said, ‘Hmm. Wow. Okay. Yep, I’ve made my decision.’”

Fortunately for the residents of Albany, who are new reaping the benefit of Don’s presence in our community, that decision kept him in the Corps and ultimately led him to Albany.

And, not surprisingly, it was yet another person taking a personal interest in him, that opened that door.

“Let me tell you something,” Don said. “I had never heard of Albany, Georgia. My assignment to Albany, Georgia occurred from a conversation standing in a bar with a guy named, he’s now retired, General James Kessler. He was the logistics command commander here.

“We were standing in a bar in Norway and he asked me what I wanted to do next.”

Always direct and honest, but now all a family man, Don replied that the two most important things to him at that point were hopefully being closer to his parents and family in Texas, and most importantly, being somewhere he and Robin felt comfortable raising their children.

“So, he says, ‘Well hey Don, I’m going to Albany to take Willie’s [Maj. General Willie Williams] place and I would love to have you on my team. And I can guarantee you a trip to Afghanistan if you join the team,’” Don recalled. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m there.’”

Somewhat comically, at that point Don didn’t realize General Kessler was referring to Albany, GA, thinking instead of Naval station in Albany, NY. But even after he learned the truth, the joke, to a certain extent, was still on him.

“It was funny,” Don said. “I knew one other guy who had been here before Stuttgart. So, after that conversation, when I returned to Germany from Norway, I asked him about. We laugh now because I know he lied to me.

“He goes, ‘Don, you know Atlanta?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Atlanta, Houston, same place.’ And he goes, ‘Albany is just like Atlanta.’ So, I said ‘okay.’

“He still lives up there in Atlanta, but oh my gosh, I don’t mean this in a bad way, but come on now, this is a different place than Atlanta. And quite frankly, there’s a lot of things about this place that are way better than Atlanta.

“This is like a different planet than Atlanta.”

There’s no hesitation in his voice and there’s a distinct look of pride in eyes when he mentions Albany, despite those early first impressions.

And for that, Don is thankful, not only to those who planted the many seeds that led him here, but to God as well, since in Don’s mind, it was a higher power ensuring Albany was the place for Grays.

Interestingly, even after being here some time, he actually tried to leave Albany as he neared his retirement, interviewing for a post-career job with the defense contractor outside of South Georgia. But like many other things in his life, that interview didn’t work out quite as he planned.

“God’s plan is always going to be better than your plan,” he said with a smile. “When I retired, I initially worked as a defense contractor for five years right here in Albany.

“And that was God’s plan, not my plan. When I started talking to that company, I had applied for a job in Jacksonville, Florida. The intent was, ‘Hey, I’ll do the apartment come back thing and as soon as the kids graduate, we’re moving.’

“In the interview with the guys who became my immediate supervisors they said, ‘Don, you’re overqualified for this job.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, okay I think that’s good, but you guys flew me here, so what’s the deal?’

“And he goes, ‘We’re opening an office in Albany, GA.’

“In other words, it wasn’t time for me to go. And if God don’t say it’s time for you to go, then you need to get up every morning and try to kill it with what you’re doing.”

Today, Don he says he really can’t imagine being anywhere else and he’s as determined as ever to do his part to make Albany even better.

True to his nature, while he’s already infinitely proud of the community that’s embraced his family, he believes there’s still important work to be done, and he’s ready, willing and able to do his part.

Furthermore, he hopes others—be it transplants like himself or natives of the area—can commit themselves to community service and helping others—things he’s seen folks around here do firsthand, just not often enough.

“We have to find a way to put in a bottle the way we respond to crises in this community and learn how to sip on that all season long, even when there is no crisis,” Don explained. “We know how to come together. We know how to bring our talents together. We know how to look out for somebody that’s less fortunate than we are. We’ve shown that back to back to back.

“Look at these adverse weather events we’ve gone through, and now we’re dealing with this Covid pandemic. We were a hot spot and now look at us.

“When we get comfortable again, where is that love that we were showing each other? Where is that helping hand that we were showing each other? We’ve got to figure out how to make that the norm around here.

“Yes, this community has it’s challenges,” he continued. “But what community doesn’t? An, you know, there’s another way to define a challenge.

“It’s an opportunity to succeed.”

The list of things Don has become involved with since that day Jackie asked his dad that powerful question, has grown exponentially since that fateful day.

And Don says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Certainly, the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce has been one of the greatest recipients of Don’s time, as he’s been incredibly active there in recent years.

In addition to serving on the Chamber’s Military Affairs and Membership committees, Don is a member of the Executive Board and will assume the Chairmanship next year. Additionally, Don is big supporter of the Chamber-backed Strive 2 Thrive initiative to help address generational poverty in the Albany area and serves on the Board of Directors for the Commodore Conyers College and Career Academy, which aims to build a better workforce through youth education.

Not surprisingly, Don also stays active coaching youth sports, doing local mission work through Mt. Zion Baptist Church (where he serves as a Deacon) and generally just being a force for good and a champion of the community, wherever he goes.

“You just want your presence to be a positive thing,” Don said. “At the end of the day, as I mentioned before, we’re all blessed. So, if you have something, no matter how little it may be, you do what you can do to help somebody else.

“I think there’s an obligation to do it.

“It’s all about service.”

As someone who has seen those same wonderful things about this community that appeal to Don, and who also hopes to see Albany thrive well into the future, I’m both thankful and inspired that Don Gray’s life’s journey has led him here.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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