At a formal reception during the September 2018 Worldwide CLE Course in Charlottesville, Virginia, Major General (Ret.) Kenneth Gray gave the following remarks:
General Pede, General Risch, members of the Regiment, Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening! I want to thank General Pede, General Risch, and the members of the Regiment for honoring me as a Distinguished Member of the Regiment.
It is great to return to the JAG School, as all of the old timers refer to the Legal Center. Carolyn and I spent four wonderful years here. We spent our first year in the advanced class (now the Graduate Course) at the old school and moved here to the Criminal Law Division when the then new School opened in 1975. Our youngest son was born here in Charlottesville at Martha Jefferson Hospital.
Thank you, General Pede, for that great introduction. You heard some of my background in that introduction, but I want to share a little more with you. It’s a long journey from McDowell County, West Virginia, to standing before you this evening.
I grew up during segregation. Although Brown v. Board of Education had been decided in 1954, it took ten years for the decision to be implemented in McDowell County—the southernmost county in the state. I had already graduated from high school.
I grew up in Excelsior Bottom, West Virginia, in McDowell County. How many of you have heard of Homer Hickam Jr.? Homer is one of the “Rocket Boys” and the movie “October Sky” is based on his life story. Homer grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia, seven miles from Excelsior. While there were similarities, our lives and experiences were so different that the distance could have been 1,000 miles apart. As many of you know, Homer achieved success as a NASA Engineer—his boyhood dream. Unlike Homer, I didn’t really dream of being a lawyer, or a two-star general in the Army, or a vice president at West Virginia University. I did dream about going to college, getting a good job, and being successful.
My grandfather was a Baptist minister, my father was a coal miner and veteran of World War II, and my mother was a homemaker. And when my father was laid off from the coalmines after eighteen years, she returned to college to earn her teaching degree. My family wanted me to have a life beyond the coalfields, and they made it clear that education would open doors to new worlds.
My teachers also stressed the importance of a college education. They served as role models for African American students in a segregated school system. They instilled in me that I could be or do anything if I worked hard and got an education.
I have been fortunate to achieve many of my own dreams and to go farther than I ever thought possible. It wasn’t easy, and I had to overcome a lot of challenges and obstacles along the way. As Booker T. Washington once said, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, but by the obstacles which one has to overcome while trying to succeed.”
I managed to succeed by having a foundation of values that helped me through the hard times, believing in myself, never giving up, and looking back to draw strength from where I came from. I always remember something my grandmother used to say: “Sometimes you have to climb up the rough side of the mountain to reach your goals.” She knew that I would face a lot of challenges and obstacles in life and wanted to prepare me for the struggle ahead.
I knew that whatever particular hurdles I would face, I had to work hard and never give up until I reached my goals. Sir Winston Churchill was once invited to speak at Harrow School, where he had attended as a youth. When he got up to speak, he simply said, “Never, ever, ever, ever, give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up,” and sat down. I never, ever, gave up, because I knew that the obstacles I faced would not define me—but the way I responded to them would.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The true measure of a man is not where he stands during times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands during times of challenge and controversy.” During my career, I faced many barriers and challenges along the way. I drew strength from that quote, and I drew strength from looking back to where I came from.
I looked back to Excelsior Bottom, West Virginia, and what my parents and teachers taught me about the difference between right and wrong and the importance of doing what’s right. I looked back to the ROTC Cadre at West Virginia State College, where they taught me the professional ethic of being a Soldier. I looked back to my law school professors at West Virginia University who taught me about the professional responsibility that’s required of a lawyer.
My success is based on how I learned to cope with the many life experiences that I faced along the way.
I was asked recently what I was most proud of during my career. There have been many great jobs, successful programs, serving as a staff judge advocate of a division and a corps. I am most proud of my assignment in 1971 to recruit minority and women lawyers for the Corps. At that time, there were eight female lawyers and sixteen African American lawyers out of about 1,600 lawyers in the Corps. My assignment was to develop a program that would increase those numbers.
I developed a five part program:
- Make recruiting visits to all of the predominantly African American law school and those with a large population of African American students.
- Enlist the support of the JAG Corps Reserve and National Guard Components to help with recruiting.
- Work with the American and National Bar Associations to recruit at their mid-year and annual meetings.
- Create an advertising program and place ads in legal magazines and magazines that appealed to predominantly African American communities.
- Create a Summer Intern Program to hire first and second year law students to work in judge advocate offices for the summer and serve as ambassadors for the Corps when they returned to their law schools in the fall.
I am most proud of the accomplishments of that program and the fact that I was given the privilege of getting the Summer Intern Program approved. I recall that the last signature I needed to get the program approved came from a civilian employee located in a small cubicle in the basement of the Pentagon.
I’m proud that the Summer Intern Program is still in operation today after forty-five years. I am also proud of the fact that Lieutenant General Darpino crashed through the glass ceiling and became our first female TJAG. I know that General Pede and General Risch are working hard to end my distinction as the only active component African American to be selected for General Officer since the inception of the Corps in 1775.
Finally, all of the people who touched my life throughout these years helped me create a foundation for success. Upon that strong foundation, I was able to build a more successful career than I ever dreamed possible.
There are also four pillars that have supported my successful career.
The first pillar: My law school experience of being the only African American student in the law school during my three years there. I was the third African American student to graduate from the WVU College of Law in 1969. Carolyn and I have very fond memories of our time there. That experience also allowed us to assimilate very well when we were assigned to JAG Offices where we were the only African Americans in the office.
The second pillar: The mentors that I had during my career were significant in providing advice and guidance and helped me be successful.
The third pillar: The NCOs and enlisted Soldiers who helped me adapt to the Army and the JAG Corps. They are the backbone of the Army and the Regiment.
The fourth pillar: My family, especially my bride, my wife, my best friend, Carolyn, who has been there for fifty-two years of marriage. I can’t thank her and our two sons enough for their support.
I know that I stand on the shoulders of so many who came before me. As the only Active Component general officer to be selected in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps since its inception, I owe them a debt of gratitude for paving the way for me to be successful.
Thank you again. I am so proud to be a Distinguished Member of the Regiment.
God bless all of you for coming this evening. God bless our Regiment and God bless the United States of America. TAL