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Willie J. Gray was an athlete in college driven by academic and business ambition. he was considered a pioneer as a minority franchise owner for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Willie J. Gray was an athlete in college driven by academic and business ambition. he was considered a pioneer as a minority franchise owner for Kentucky Fried Chicken. (Handout)

Willie J. Gray, a Baltimore businessman who became a pioneering minority franchise owner for Kentucky Fried Chicken, died June 19 of a cardiac arrest at Lehigh Valley-Muhlenberg Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa.

The Govans resident was 76.

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Geneva Thomas, a West Baltimore resident and fellow KFC franchisee, recalled Mr. Gray as a “fine businessman” and a “very nice man who was friendly and kind.”

“Willie trained and mentored a lot of people in the business because he wanted to help people,” she said. “That was his world.”

Willie James Gray was the son of Robert Carr Gray and Nancy Murray. He was born in Burke County, Ga., and raised in Augusta, where he graduated from Lucy C. Laney High School.

Even when he was young his family dubbed him “Little Man,” a reference to his “mature demeanor and consistent financial contribution in support of his family,” his daughter, Tamara Donnelle Gray of Bucktown, Pa., wrote in a biographical profile of Mr. Gray.

“As a boy, his entrepreneurial spirit was first ignited when he was put in charge of running a local grocery store by its owner, Mr. Sims,” she wrote.

Kevin L. Dougherty, a retired salesman and sports fan, died June 16 of a heart attack while vacationing in San Diego, Calif. The former Towson resident was 65.

An outstanding quarterback in high school, Mr. Gray continued playing football while attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, a noted historically black university.

Larry Brown, of Frederica, Del., was a college classmate and football teammate. He noted that while at A&T, Mr. Gray was the backup quarterback to Jesse Jackson, the noted civil rights leader.

Other teammates included NFL Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea, who played for the then-Houston Oilers; Mel Phillips, who played for the San Francisco 49ers and later became a coach with the Detroit Lions; and Emerson Boozer, a running back with the New York Jets from 1966 to 1975.

But Mr. Gray’s main focus was academics.

“Willie Gray was a very good athlete, but he was more a scholar than an athlete. He always stressed that getting an education was first, and you’re only an athlete for a short time,” said Mr. Brown, who had been a halfback on the football squad.

“He had been a straight A student in high school. At college, after dinner, he’d go back to his room and rest for two or three hours before joining his regular study group, and they would study way into the early hours,” he said. “And he did this night after night for four years.

“Willie was very outgoing and easy to communicate with, but he had a serious side. It was all about preparing for life,” Mr. Brown said. “He knew what he wanted out of life from day one.”

“He was known for advising, ‘Remember, don’t forget to get your books,’ ” said his daughter.

In 1960, he received a dual bachelor’s degree in accounting and marketing and research. Mr. Gray had an opportunity to play for the Dallas Cowboys but was “thwarted by a knee in jury,” his daughter said.

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He went to work in the mid-1960s as an accountant for Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich.

Ronald G. Carney, of Rocky Mount, N.C., worked with Mr. Gray at Dow. He recalled him as “a very good person who excelled in terms of personality, fortitude, discipline and punctuality — all things of value that made him an all-around individual.”

“He was a very good salesman because he was organized and had great organizational skills,” he said. “He was a very good friend of mine.”

After leaving Dow, Mr. Gray returned to Augusta, where he married the former Grace Ward in 1970. The couple moved to Baltimore, and he began a successful sales career with Corning Inc., and later Proctor & Gamble Distributing Co.

“Willie was a very driven person who realized as a person if you had an opportunity, take advantage of it, because it might not come again,” Mr. Brown said.

In 1986, Mr. Gray established and became president of WG&T Inc., derived from the first letters of his, his wife’s and his daughter’s names — Willie, Grace and Tamara. The firm built, owned and operated a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in the 900 block of N. Caroline St.

“In the early 1980s there were four of us who were African-American Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisees,” said Mrs. Thomas, who owned two KFC franchises in Essex, and one at North Avenue and St. Paul Street. “I was first, Willie was second, and then came Mike Savage and Harlow Fullwood Jr.

“We were pioneers,” she said.

Ms. Gray said the business was a family affair.

“My mother was his bookkeeper, and he was my first employer,” Ms. Gray said in a telephone interview. “I worked as an administrator making sure people had everything they needed when they got hired.”

Mr. Gray was known as a role model who was “a fair boss and employer who listened and cared,” his daughter said.

“He was a very pleasant man,” Mrs. Thomas said. “He was a person who never held a grudge, and he always said, ‘Do me wrong, and I still won’t hold a grudge.’”

He sold his business in the early 2000s, his daughter said.

Mr. Gray lived in Govans and was known as “The Mayor of East Belvedere Avenue.” He enjoyed spending winters in Augusta.

He was a member of St. Paul Baptist Church on The Alameda and served as a member of its deacon board. Hobbies included following the Ravens and playing golf.

Services for Mr. Gray will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Vaughn Greene Funeral Home, 8728 Liberty Road, Randallstown.

In addition to his wife of 48 years and their daughter, he is survived by a niece; and six nephews.

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