Eulogy for an old friend

An old friend, someone whom I'd spent a lot of time sitting next to while drinking coffee, has passed on.  Wayne Gray succumbed to a massive heart attack last week.

He was almost a fixture of Magnolia, sitting most mornings outside of the Upper Crust Bakery with his cup of hot tea.

Wayne always wore his dark blue U.S. Coast Guard ball cap, and during the winter he pulled on a heavy green-plaid Woolrich jacket with a scarf around his neck to help shut out some of the cold. If you knew him well, he'd admit to long underwear under his trousers, too.

It took more than a little cold weather to drive him indoors. He'd sit outside mornings, even when the weather forecasters were predicting snow, holding his mug of starter-fluid in gloved hands. It would have to be awfully windy, or there would actually have to be stuff falling out of the sky, before Wayne would move inside. He just liked to be outside, feeling the fresh air on his face and watching the traffic fill McGraw as Magnolia came alive each morning. After he'd finished a couple of mugs, he'd get in one of his cars and drive home to his wife Priscilla. He had two cars: a big, white, recent-model Lincoln and an old green Ford convertible with aging paint and a torn back window.

Wayne wasn't a real talkative sort, but after you'd spent some time with him over numerous cups of coffee (or in Wayne's case tea), you'd hear more and more stories about Magnolia's history. He certainly wasn't the oldest resident of the neighborhoods, but he'd been around long enough to remember when the current Magnolia playfields contained the West Point Dairy Farm. There were other Magnolia farms Wayne remembered, too.

Wayne Gray was born in 1922 on the houseboat "Lady of the Lake" on Lake Washington, nine blocks north of where the I-90 floating bridge is now. His father, Cecil, and his grandfather, Albert, started the Gray Lumber and Shingle Company in 1919, a wholesale lumber business that remained in operation until 1960.

Early during the 1920s, the Gray family moved from the houseboat to Lawton Wood. Out beyond the Chittenden Locks and Discovery Park-out on the very end of the peninsula that is Magnolia-is one of Magnolia's more exclusive and obscure neighborhoods: Lawton Wood.

Like Magnolia itself, you don't cut through Lawton Wood to get anywhere. The only reason you have for being in the neighborhood is that you sought it out-or that you were so seriously lost that... no, nobody ever gets that lost. You can't get any farther away from the center of Magnolia Village on McGraw Street and still be in Magnolia. This was where Wayne Gray grew up.

Because of Lawton Wood's remote location, Ruby Scheuerman, one of the local ladies, opened her private school in the fall of 1928 for the children of the neighborhood. Wayne and his younger brother Paul were her first pupils. The school was located in a one-room schoolhouse and averaged six to 10 pupils each year.

After attending the Lawton Wood school for five years, one of Gray's aunties questioned whether the boys were keeping up with the public schools. To quell her anxiety, the boys were sent to Magnolia Public School for the sixth grade in 1933.

There were no problems, so the boys were back attending Ruby's school for the seventh and eighth grades. Wayne then continued his schooling at Lakeside, a private high school in northern Seattle, although he actually got his diploma from Queen Anne High School.

Wayne once told me that it was during 1932, when he was only 10, that his father first taught him how to drive their Model-A Ford. Their "practice" route was on the main road from the east gate of Fort Lawton, up the hill to where the "Alki No. 1," the streetcar that ran from Fort Lawton to West Seattle, turned around and back.

In late 1932, Wayne's father, Cecil Gray, bought the first of a series of Chryslers. It was a yellow 1933 convertible with side-mounted spare wheels and a rumble seat. "A real classic," was how Wayne had described it to me.

That car turned Wayne's father into a Chrysler man. Over the years he bought a 1934 four-door sedan, an ahead-of-its-time 1939 Chrysler Airflow, another convertible in 1941 and, finally, a 1951 convertible Chrysler Imperial that's still in the family.

When the Gray boys had a few coins between them, they might walk the mile to Valentine's Grocery, located at the east gate of Fort Lawton at 36th Avenue and Government Way. There, by spending their Indian-head pennies and Liberty nickels, they could buy a few sweets.

This lesson wasn't lost on the boys. Being budding entrepreneurs, the Gray boys-along with Tom Parry (who would later go on to be head coach at Central Washington University)-decided to open a store of their own. In about 1935 or 1936 the boys started a candy, pop and gum "store" located just before the Lawton Wood sign archway, on the only road into the neighborhood.

Actually, the "store" was little more than a stand made up of a few boards nailed together and covered with some oil-cloth to form a counter and a laundry tub filled with ice to keep the pop cold.

The Coca-Cola distributor was enticed to extend his route from Valentine's Grocery to the boy's stand, and even provided a few Coca-Cola tin signs for advertising. Tom's father was connected with the Society Candy Co. of Tacoma, where the boys purchased the stand's candy bars, gum, etc.

The Lawton Wood Brats, as the boys were sometimes known, didn't always have to depend on Coca-Cola to satisfy their thirst for carbonated beverages. "There were the summers when we made root beer," Gray once told me with a smile on his face and a hearty chuckle. "Any old beer bottles that we could collect were soaked in our bath tub to remove the labels and then washed in hot water." But, like boys everywhere, they figured that directions were only a general guide.

So to speed up the aging process, they doubled the amount of yeast required. With a smile, Gray remembered how, after a few weeks, the increasing pressure would blow the caps off the bottles, creating a real mess.

Albert Gray, Wayne's uncle, started a service station at the corner of 34th Avenue and West McGraw that provided Wayne with his first real job. He remembered that in 1941 he had a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that he used to shag parts for his uncle's garage.

One day, he crashed into a milk truck at 28th Avenue and Smith. The crash broke his wrist, blew out the front tire on the Harley and wrinkled its fender. Wayne was afraid the wrist might keep him out of the service when he volunteered for the Coast Guard at only 19, shortly after Peal Harbor, and was thankful when it didn't.

When he came back from the war in 1946, he married Priscilla, a Queen Anne resident herself. They moved down to Oregon to work further in the family lumber business, and moved back to Seattle in 1950; they have been in their present house in Magnolia ever since.

Wayne and Priscilla had six children: Gary, Cecil, Warren, Christopher, Kristine and Mary Ann. Unfortunately, Christopher-or "Kippy," as he was known-was killed in Vietnam, where he proudly served in the Army 1st Cavalry.

I'll miss Wayne. All of us who knew him will. He was an invaluable source of Magnolia history and the kind of friend you could sit next to and never speak to for minutes on end, yet be comfortable just being in his presence.[[In-content Ad]]