April 02--WELLFLEET -- Barbara Gray, 87, died Friday in Wellfleet, the town where she had embraced local activism after her 24-year career representing Framingham on Beacon Hill.
She was known both in Wellfleet and in the Legislature for her mix of toughness and caring and was a forward thinker on issues that continue to be a struggle today, friends said Tuesday.
"Barbara Gray was like a giant who was walking among us," Ira Wood, a friend and former Wellfleet selectman, said. "I don't think any of us really realized, certainly not on a day-to-day basis, that she was responsible for some of the most progressive legislation of the 1970s and early '80s."
Gray served as a state representative in the Legislature from 1973 to 1996. For many years she ran as a Republican but in 1990 was narrowly defeated in the Republican primary. However, she received enough write-in votes to win the Democratic primary and eventually defeat her Republican challenger.
She served on the Ways and Means Committee from 1974 to 1992. But the list of special committees and commissions that she served on in the Statehouse gives a strong indication of what mattered to her: divorce, suicide in municipal detention centers, local aid, bus safety, parenting leave, temporary disability and dependent care insurance, comparable worth, and growth and development.
She was an original sponsor of gay rights legislation filed after the 1978 assassination of the openly gay San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Harvey Milk, according to her family.
"She was bold and caring and outspoken and determined, and really, she was a person before her time," Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, said Tuesday.
In the mid-1990s, Khan would go with Gray to visit the women's state prison in Framingham. On Tuesday, Khan recalled Gray's signature approach to strangers.
"She would just walk right up to the prisoners and shake their hand and ask them how they were doing, and if they were getting their needs met," Khan said.
The idea of allowing the women to keep their babies with them was very important to Gray, and an issue that today still needs to be fully addressed, Khan said.
Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, recalled that Gray was "tough" in the best sense of the word.
"She said to me, 'Sarah, never be afraid to be a fighter. That's what people want in their representatives,' and she's spot on about that," Peake said Tuesday.
Gray was an adviser to Peake during her campaigns, and at times Gray sought out Peake for advice. "(She said) follow your passion and develop your issues, and work hard on those," Peake said.
In Wellfleet, where she moved with her second husband, Norman Gardner, after leaving the Statehouse, Gray took up local issues on the town Planning Board, the Local Comprehensive Planning Committee and several other boards. She was a founder of the nonprofit Friends of Herring River and past president of the Wellfleet Community Forum, a nonpartisan civic group.
Wellfleet resident and friend Jan Morrissey served on the Planning Board with Gray and on the forum board. Gray not only loved politics and public service, but got the people around her excited about it. Many people serving now on town boards in Wellfleet and in other community volunteer positions likely were recruited by Gray, Morrissey said. Gray was often seen in Town Hall with her dog, friends said.
"I think her passing just leaves empty places in so many parts of this community," Morrissey said.
Wood recalled Gray's ability to show both fierceness and equanimity in the midst of heated debates.
"As many times as I clicked with her, she and I would be on opposite sides of an issue," he said. "Sometimes she would just stare at me and cross her arms and say, 'I don't like you.' But it was in a kind of a friendly way. She never lost that glitter in her eye, that special fondness for fun. She was always up for a party. She was always up for a meeting."
A celebration of her life is planned later this spring.
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