Mableton’s Betty Gray, who devoted her life to teaching children, mentoring teachers and improving her community, died Friday.
She was 88.
Gray served 16 years on the Cobb County Board of Education, a board that was majority Republican. Although she was a Democrat, the board elected her chair, such was the respect she commanded as a veteran educator. She also broke the glass ceiling as the first woman principal in the Cobb School District.
“She took education responsibly, and she took her role seriously whether she was a teacher, administrator or on the school board, but she never took herself seriously, and while I’ve heard stories of how hard she could be, she tempered her edges with a sense of humor,” said Cobb Board of Education Chairman David Chastain. “If I had to sum her up in one word, I would say she approached everything joyfully.”
Born July 1, 1933, in Carrollton, Gray began her teaching career in Alabama in 1953, before joining the Cobb School District in 1957. Gray reminisced about this at the 60th reunion of South Cobb High School’s Class of 1959 a few years ago, where she recalled being interviewed by Principal W. O. Smitha, namesake of Smitha Middle School.
“When I interviewed with Mr. Smitha, I came in with a little white hat, white gloves, hose with the seam down. Perfectly straight. You do not wear hose without a straight seam! And a little purse and high heel shoes. You know, Mr. Smitha was about that tall, if you remember,” said Gray, referring to the principal’s height. “I thought, ‘Oh, I have made a terrible mistake!’”
Gray said her mother accompanied her to South Cobb High for moral support.
“I was so nervous. She said, ‘He’s a little short man. He realized you were tall,’” Gray said with a laugh.
Gray was hired as an English teacher and counted former Gov. Roy Barnes among her students.
“Let me tell you something, you didn’t fool with Betty Gray. You kept your mouth shut and did your work,” said Barnes, one of the speakers with Gray at the class reunion.
Another student of Gray’s is retired banker Joe Daniell, who recalled as a boy of 17 how intimidating he found her as his English teacher in 1958, “with her spiked heels and German shepherd police dog. She looked 7 feet tall.”
(The graduating class gifted Gray with a German shepherd because they knew she loved them.)
Daniell said Gray drove a brand new 1959 Chevrolet when he was a senior (her late husband, Harold Owen Gray, worked for a Chevrolet dealer).
“We thought she was something,” he said. “I thought she was mean as Old Scratch. They sent me to the principal’s office. I had misbehaved in class.”
In the principal’s office, Smitha said Daniell should have known better given his father, Herman Daniell, was on the Cobb school board at the time.
“He said ‘We’re going to the coach’s office, and I’m going to introduce you to another board of education,” Daniell said, recalling the three painful licks he received with a paddle. In hindsight, Daniell recognizes the tough love.
“You know, you have these strict teachers, but you know, they cared something for you,” he said. “We never resented discipline or things like that, because we knew it was for our own good, and see, that’s what parents told students. That’s why you had a good feeling for your teacher. My mother and daddy, if Betty Gray said I did this or did that, there’s no question about it. I did it. They took her word for it before they took mine.”
Ron Wallace of Buckhead is president of South Cobb High’s Class of 1959.
“We all loved Betty Gray. The wisdom she passed on to us even at our last reunion, she always just encouraged us to go on, and however old we were to keep doing our best and making a difference. She was a real inspiration to me,” Wallace said.
Gray was Wallace’s homeroom and English teacher.
“I really admired and respected her. She gave me the tools for the rest of my life really because engineers are not known for their ability in English and grammar and she taught it. She gave me a good basic grounding in grammar that served me for a lifetime,” Wallace said.
Barnes said the most important thing Gray taught him was how to write, a critical skill for a lawyer and lawmaker. Gray insisted students write with a fountain pen using black ink, a habit Barnes carries with him to this day.
Responded Gray at the reunion: “When you have to read term papers, you know, they had no keyboards. You’ve got to be able to read it.”
In those days, Gray said more emphasis was placed on teaching than on standardized tests.
“And we didn’t worry about whether they took the ACT. They took with them what they saw, an education to get to where they were in Mableton, Georgia, to where they wanted to go. And some of them went to the governor’s office.”
In a Monday interview, Barnes described his English teacher as transformational.
“You know, there’s certain teachers that change your life, and Betty Gray was one for me,” Barnes said. “She encouraged me to go to college. You know, I came up in a time and a place when you didn’t think much about going to college. You went to work at Clarkdale Mill or Daddy’s store. She encouraged me to go to college. She was a life changer for me. Her legacy will live as long as there are folks like me and others that can remember her and tell what a wonderful person she was and how she changed our lives.”
Breaking the glass
Gray became the first woman administrator in the Cobb School District when she was named assistant principal of east Cobb’s Wheeler High School in 1972. She became the first woman principal in Cobb when she was named principal of Sedalia Park Elementary in 1975.
“Her being the first woman principal, that was a real glass ceiling,” Daniell said.
In a 1990 feature on her retirement as principal of Compton Elementary, the MDJ asked her about being Cobb’s first woman principal.
“It didn’t make any difference at all,” Gray responded with characteristic candor. “The administrator ought to be able to create a climate for learning for boys and girls. Sex has nothing to do with that. Children are wonderful. If you’re involved in their lives, they adjust. The only thing, even now, when I’m working alone in the summer, a salesman will sometimes come in. He’ll say ‘I’d like to see the principal. Is he in?’ And I just smile and say, ‘No, he’s not.’”
Gray was elected to the school board in 1992, and served four, four-year terms. One of her allies on the board was state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, who served on the school board for 12 years. At one point, Gray and Tippins were the only voices against Superintendent Joe Redden’s $100.8 million laptop plan which the Georgia Supreme Court ruled to be illegal in 2006. The plan was ruled a bait and switch of special purpose local option sales tax funding.
Gray and Tippins also were the only board members to balk at the Carver Governance Model, the brainchild of the system’s $1,000-an-hour consultant John Carver that shifted responsibility and accountability to the superintendent from the board. Thanks to their leadership, Carver was junked.
At that time, it was tradition for central office secretaries to arrange a dinner for board members when they held their executive sessions prior to the board’s public meeting. Remarking on the dinner she was expected to attend with several of the superintendent’s allies who had lost reelection, Gray deadpanned, “I can’t wait,” adding that she might need a “good shot of bourbon and branch water” to get through the meal.
“She was as straightforward as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Tippins said. “If she told you what her position was on something, she’d tell you whether she was for it or against it, and if she told you she supports you, you didn’t have to look around behind yourself to make sure she was there.”
Working across the aisle
Despite Gray being the only Democrat on the board at the time, Tippins said he was probably closer to her than anyone else on the board.
“We realized we were in different parties, and we didn’t always agree on everything, but we had one standing rule, and that was whatever it was over and whichever way it turned out, we were still going to be friends. And we were. I thought the world of her, and I think it was mutual. We trusted one another. We worked together.”
Tippins said his relationship with Gray paid dividends when he served under the Gold Dome. It taught him how to work across the political aisle when both officials were working toward a good cause.
“I really valued her insight. She had so much education experience, and the thing that always stood out to me unquestionably is she always put students first, and in any conversation it was what was best for students.”
Her high expectations for students extended to her teachers when she became an administrator.
“She would be supportive of the teachers in the school, but she expected a high level of performance,” Tippins said. “She didn’t want teachers mistreated, but she sure didn’t want children mistreated either, and it was always a question of what was in the academic best interest of students. She had a lot to do with forming my philosophy on education.”
Gray put an emphasis on elementary education, insisting that children learn the basics of reading, writing and mathematics. She would say if you get the basics right, you then have something to build on, Tippins said.
“I’ve quoted that hundreds of times. She was a very strong advocate for south Cobb. I can tell you without a doubt south Cobb was not shirked when Betty was on the board, because she was a strong advocate for them,” he said.
Cobb Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale called Gray the consummate educator, and someone he will greatly miss.
“No matter the circumstances, she would always reply to your question of ‘How are you doing?’ with ‘I’m an 11 on a 10-point scale.’ Being able to work with her as a Board of Education member is something I will always cherish,” Ragsdale said. “She was the perfect example of how to be a board member without the politics. The Cobb County School District is so very fortunate to have had her always doing what was best for the children.”
During her career, Gray was showered with honors, among them being named the 2007 South Cobb Citizen of the Year by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce and receiving the Horace Sturgis Award for Excellence in Education in 1990 from the Kiwanis Club of Marietta. In 2004, Pebblebrook High School honored her by establishing the Betty Gray Enrichment Center on its campus.
After retiring from the Cobb School District, Gray worked at Kennesaw State University, mentoring teachers-in-training as they learned the ropes in the Cherokee County School District. She would never allow herself to be compromised by a conflict of interest from serving on the Cobb school board, Tippins said.
Gray once told the Journal she wouldn’t accept a cup of coffee when a superintendent tried to buy one for her. Drawing that line, she explained, allowed her to be worry-free about any conflict-of-interest concerns.
‘It’s the hyphen’
In 2004, the first Betty Gray scholarships were awarded to students in the south Cobb area who planned on becoming teachers. The annual Betty Gray Teacher Education Scholarship Luncheon in 2006 saw two of the county’s most admired Bettys in attendance: Gray and Kennesaw State University President Betty Siegel. As the keynote speaker, Siegel touched on epitaphs in her talk, recalling how during one KSU commencement she couldn’t think of anything to say to the graduates, until she thought about the epitaphs in her family.
“Students, it’s not your birth date that matters. It’s not the death date that matters. It’s the hyphen,” Siegel said.
Turning to Gray, Siegel asked what her epitaph should say.
“Betty Gray — teacher,” Gray replied.
“Applaud that teacher right there,” Siegel told the room. “She has reminded us all of the importance of education as a profession.”
Gray said she was frequently asked what makes for a good teacher.
“‘What does it take to teach? Why would I want to teach? How do I know I want to teach?’ And I always say you’ve got to have the cognitive ability to do it. You’ve got to go to a good school so you get the techniques, content, strategies, but more than that, you’ve just got to have heart. You just have to be willing to share, to hurt, to share the joy and to dream another day,” Gray said.
Gray is survived by her daughter, Della-Lisa Gray of Mableton, and her sister, Lanette Horton of Mt. Zion.
On Monday, a funeral service was held at her church, Trinity United Methodist Church in Austell, with Rev. Jeffery O’Neal and Rev. Grant Perry officiating, followed by interment at Union Campground Cemetery in Waco, Georgia.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Hightower Funeral Home of Bremen is in charge of arrangements.