Beth Henderson Gray and Dave Gray have a relationship that has spanned the decades, a few states and several rivers.
It began when she flirted with a tall, handsome toll booth collector on one span of the Thousand Islands Bridge in upstate New York.
Both Grays were working summer jobs to pay for college in a resort area 3 miles from the border between the U.S. and Canada. Beth Gray, a resident of the island town of Watertown on the far side of the St. Lawrence River, worked in the bridge's information center.
She took the E-ZPass lane to his heart. They married June 14, 1980.
Thirty-four years later, they celebrated their wedding anniversary doing what they love most. They opened their Hardesty Estates home in Davidsonville and its 2-acre emerald greensward of a yard to nearly 100 people. They hosted the U.S. Naval Academy Parents Club of Maryland's annual "Welcome Aboard" picnic for 19 local incoming Class of 2018 members, their parents and family, USNA alumni and officials, and club members.
The Grays are active members of the club, which includes parents of current midshipmen and graduates. Plus, midshipmen sponsors are welcomed as auxiliary members.
Beth Gray is the club's current president. The website is maryland.usnaparents.com.
One of its most popular functions is the tailgate at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium the club co-hosts at every Navy home football game with the Parents Clubs of New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania. The combined group stages a mass, nonalcoholic social event. During and after each game, the clubs offer a feast of homemade food, grilled meats, desserts and sodas to between 500 to 1,200 midshipmen. While waiting for the hungry hordes to arrive, members socialize at the large tailgate site or go watch the game.
During the academic year, longer-tenured members of the Maryland club welcome and give practical been-there-done-that advice to parents of incoming plebes - and to the parents of midshipmen about to graduate to help them prepare for the Commissioning Week ceremonies and activities.
The Grays have no biological children of their own, but, since 1998, have been sponsor-parents to dozens of midshipmen, including a 2005 graduate from Honduras and Katie Whitcombe of Arizona, who graduated in 2013 and is now a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England.
During her plebe year, Whitcombe's parents moved back to their homeland in the Philippines with her two younger brothers. With her family half a world away, Whitcombe's relationship with the Grays deepened. She stayed at the Gray residence on weekends and over holiday and vacation periods.
Homesick for their own homeland, her brothers returned to the U.S. several years ago. The older one enrolled at Arizona State University. The Grays agreed to become legal guardians of the younger one, Lionel Whitcombe, who lives with the couple and attends South River High School.
The Grays arrived in Maryland in the early 1990s after Dave Gray was transferred by his employer. Missing the water views of the Thousand Lakes region, they were drawn to the Annapolis area.
Dave Gray is now with American Solutions for Business, a promotional product distributorship. Beth Gray works in the Software Control department of the Maryland Department of Child Support Enforcement Control.
The Grays were barely aware of the Naval Academy or its sponsor program when they purchased their gracious, 2-story home in Davidsonville in 1994. Built as a model house in 1992, the Grays are the residence's first owners. Although sited near a busy, South County intersection, the property feels miles away from the rat race. The 4-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath center hall colonial is cozy and welcoming whether it's a quiet weeknight for the Grays, Whitcombe and Sophie, their 4-year old Chesapeake Bay retriever; or a weekend with a houseful of Sponsor-Mids and their classmates.
Pulling up the cul de sac, it's easy to tell which house is Chez Gray.
It's the one with the Parents Club trailer parked outside. The Grays will use to the trailer to haul pop-up canopies, grills, chairs, tables, food and supplies to this fall's five Navy home football games.
A walkway leads from the 2-car attached garage to the front of the house, framed by manicured shrubbery and dotted with blooming knockout roses.
At the front door, a tri-panel of clear, beveled, glass forming a rippled circle, is a doormat. "No pin heads" it says.
The photographer and I check our heads. We pass inspection, and knock on the door.
Warm and welcoming
Once inside, the sun-filled, informal open space at the rear of the house beckons.
But first, let's look at the dining room to the right of the staircase, and, on the left, the living room.
The dining room has two entrances: one off the center hallway and one leading into the kitchen area. Set upon a colorful, flat woven area rug, the oval table is covered with a shimmering, lace tablecloth. On the two-toned gray walls, above the white chair rail is the first of several framed prints by local artist Nancy Hammond.
Here, also, and throughout the house, most of the furniture pieces are classic Mission Oak styles made by the L. & J.G. Stickley company, a 114-year-old firm based in Manlius, N.Y.
On the other side of the hallway, the living room is casual, but - please! - no feet on the hardwood drop leaf coffee table. The lion claw feet of its rounded legs rest on a small, pale Persian carpet. The table was created by Watertown, N.Y., woodworkers.
The pale, multi-stripe sofa is flanked by matching end tables topped with cream-colored lamps. It faces a pair of upholstered, pale rose plush armchairs.
The rear of the house, taking up more than half of the main floor, is an open area comprising the kitchen, a dining space and a family room. The kitchen and dining area is paved with pale ceramic tiles; the family room has the same gleaming, golden oak plank flooring as the rest of the main floor. Smaller tiles set on the diagonal form the kitchen's back splashes.
In the dining area, the high back chairs clustered around the mission style oak table are twins to those lined up along the kitchen's island. The tall dining table was handcrafted by John Henderson, Beth Gray's father.
The kitchen has been updated twice, most recently in 2012.
"We had to get a bigger refrigerator to handle all the midshipmen's food," joked Beth Gray as she showed off the oversized appliance. Its brushed steel doors complement the other steel or black enameled appliances and the kitchen's oak cabinetry and window valance. One floor-to-ceiling built-in cabinet serves as the pantry.
In the family area, above the couch is a print by Michael Ringer, a renowned painter of Adirondack and St. Lawrence River scenes. Dave points to a point of light in the artwork, which depicts the bridge where he once toiled at the tollbooth.
"That's Beth's house," he said.
A natural wooden display case cantilevered into a corner of the room is topped with a trio of hand-carved duck decoys. Beneath them, mementos from the couple's travels are on view, along with photos of family members and the Grays' Sponsor-Mid kids. Some are souvenirs from Beth Gray's travels in Russia and Japan, including a gilded paper folding fan and a set of Matryoshka or Russian nesting dolls. The dolls depict members of the Grays favorite - er - second favorite football team, the Penn State Nittony Lions.
"I couldn't resist when I saw these," she said.
On the mantel of the gas fireplace, two more duck decoys have nested, one on either side of a brass and wood ship's clock that was a 25th wedding anniversary gift.
In the center of the space, an oak coffee table with a glass top is actually a shadow box for showcasing the Grays' collection of antique hand tools, arrowheads, pocket watches and camping cutlery.
What's on second?
On the second floor, we'll look into three bedrooms.
The first one is the Midshipmen's Room. The Mission style metal frame bed is covered with a pristine white quilt, topped with a Naval Academy pillow. On a nearby shelf is a yellow sponge "boat hat" - a giveaway during last year's football games.
A small throw rug in the room was hooked by hand by Beth Gray's late grandmother Doris Loomis.
"The wool was recycled from old woolen Navy uniforms," Gray explained. "She took apart the uniforms, and re-dyed and shredded the fabric to create her rugs."
Down the hall is Lionel Whitcombe's incredibly orderly room. The photographer and this writer gawk. We've never seen such a tidy teen habitat.
"It's like this all the time," Dave Gray shrugged.
The teenager's bed features a Penn State blanket layered beneath a sign of rebellion in this Navy-oriented family - a U.S. Army blanket. Lionel Whitcombe, a member of the Annapolis High NJROTC unit, hopes, when he goes to college next year, to enroll in an Army ROTC program.
His collection of acoustic and electric guitars are propped against one wall. In another corner, is the teen's black and gray desk set, ready for another round of homework when school begins in late August.
In the master bedroom, the Grays' wooden 4-poster bed rests beneath a framed print of the Annapolis Harbor featuring the distinctive dome of the State Capital in the background. A framed wedding photo of the couple is displayed on the wooden bureau.
A blanket rack is draped with two colorful bed covers. One is made of crocheted yarn, the other is a hand-stitched, diamond patterned quilt. Both were made by Dave Gray's grandmother, Margaret Gray.
Descending into the lower level, we take a quick look at the suite that doubles as the couple's office and another bedroom for overnight guests.
The floor features the same tile as the kitchen - easier to scoot across in a rolling office chair. Both Grays have their own modular desks and filing areas. The two areas are brimming with office equipment and paperwork.
Set against one wall is a white enameled metal frame day bed, plumped with a quilt and pillows.
Back upstairs, we head for the front door.
"Beat Army!" the couple says as we depart.