January 31, 2023
DEFINITION: diligent, skillful, ingenious.
As Uncommon a Character As They Come: Joe Gray of Gray Manufacturing
It’s uncommon to meet a centenarian. It’s even more uncommon to meet one like Joe Gray.
The founder of Gray Manufacturing, Joe Gray, who recently turned 100 years old, can tell vibrant stories of developing missiles during World War II, followed by a discussion of his beloved art collection, which boasts 1,300 pieces. But the story that may stick in your mind is the one that begins with a washing machine motor.
Joe Gray had the convenience of walking to college when he began his classes at what would become Missouri Western State University. When it came time to transfer to the University of Kansas to finish the program, Joe faced a challenge: it was nearly 80 miles away.
The challenge was short-lived; Joe’s father J.H. Gray supercharged a bicycle for Joe with a washing machine motor. And away he went to complete a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical engineering.
Joe’s degree would be of critical importance to the U.S. Navy during WWII, where Joe’s superiors discovered his capabilities and promptly tasked Joe with advising on the development of missiles.
His father J.H. also had an eye for design, a skill demonstrated in his 1921 auto lift patent that simplified tire changes and repairs. Joe and J.H. teamed up to found Gray Manufacturing, selling their air lifts to automotive repair shops and service stations with a unique “try-before-you-buy” policy. Mechanics appreciated the long-lasting quality and safety features the Gray auto lift brought to their shops, and Joe and J.H. noticed that their jacks never left a shop once they had been tried.
Joe and J.H. weren’t afraid to try a new approach in other areas, as well. Joe and J.H. wanted their employees to feel like valued contributors, all taking part in the success of the company. This tradition continues today, and Joe still loves to be in the shop. He takes time to shake hands with employees and express his appreciation for each person’s contribution to the quality of Gray products.
A person synonymous with the auto repair industry doesn’t seem likely to also be an art connoisseur, but the Gray Manufacturing Corporate Collection possesses 1,300 art pieces curated by Joe. The Albrecht-Kemper Museum celebrated Joe’s 99th birthday with the Joe Show, a special display of 143 pieces from his collection.
When you see Joe, you may struggle to decide which story to ask him to tell first: his contribution to missile design, how he amassed his impressive art collection or just how fast a washing machine motor will make a bike go. No matter which story you choose, you’re sure to see that Joe Gray is a prime example of Uncommon Character.
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