Remembering Alec Gray

A public servant who lived his life according to eulogy virtues

A LOT CAN HAPPEN in 10 years.

Ten years go by, enough time for the world to change irrevocably.  In 10 years a job can be outsourced, or made obsolete by technology.  The world can start and end a war.  A vaccine can save lives.  A new virus can undo a generation.

Ten years go by and you can see physical changes, imperceptible at first and then unavoidable, every time you take a long, thoughtful look into the mirror. As Bonnie Raitt sang, “those lines are pretty hard to take when they’re staring back at you.”

In 10 years you can attain long-sought goals and see them pass away like dust in your hands.  In 10 years, you can fall by the wayside or develop resilience and durability.  As time moves forward, each of us can stand still or move forward with it.

A lot can happen in 10 years.

Ten years ago this month my good friend, mentor, and guardian angel, Alec Gray, died.   Alec was a lawyer, a civic activist, a husband, a role model, and a deeply dedicated public servant who always put more into his work than he ever took out of it.  He was an urban pioneer, establishing his home on Appleton Street long before it was chic to have a South End address and collecting , and collecting green Depression glass before Martha Stewart was a household name.  Alec was an unmemorable cook, a generous host, and a pleasure to be with.

I first met Alec in Frank Bellotti’s attorney general’s office.  He was devoted to Frank and passionate about Frank’s approach to being attorney general – taking the side of the little guy and elevating public lawyering to an honored profession. Alec went on to become general counsel for the Department of Social Services, and later the executive director of the Adoption Center, and chief operating officer of Concord-Assabet Family and Adolescent Services, working with at-risk youth who needed help, and with adults committed to giving opportunity to children who needed help.

Alec was a diligent and thoughtful lawyer, but he brought much more to the table.  He had a sparkling wit and ribald sense of humor; his generosity of spirit was expansive. Most important to me: his loyalty to friends was unshakeable.  He was the kind of friend who always had your back and always made your life better.

He and his partner of many years were married on the front lawn of their Jamaica Plain home the summer of 2004 following the landmark Goodridge decision.  SJC Justice Margot Botsford, who was then on the Superior Court and who had also served in Bellotti’s office, officiated.  It was a grand and elegant affair. For those of us who knew Alec during the Bellotti years, marriage was not something we thought he’d be drawn to. He was the quintessential free sprit, and he loved his life then.  But marriage, when it came, proved an affirmation of everything Alec cared about: love, family, freedom, and fairness.

When he called me in March 2005 to tell me he wasn’t feeling well, there was something in his voice that betrayed a sense that something bad lay ahead.  He had been treated, successfully we believed, for a melanoma 18 months earlier.  But now he wasn’t “feeling well,” and if you knew Alec that meant he was feeling pretty sick, and it wasn’t long before he called me again to say that he’d been given a year to live and it felt like “a kick in the gut.”

The following months are, in my memory, a blur of events.  I saw Alec frequently and, organized as ever, he gave me a list of assignments to complete. One item on that list bears recollection here.  At the time of his illness, Alec was general counsel to the Trial Court, and he was soon running out of sick time.  The Legislature can enact a special law that allows state employees to offer up their unused sick time to someone who may need it. This sharing of unused sick time is something that happens, and ought only to happen, in urgent circumstances.  Alec was in such circumstances.  A bill to help him was moving through the Legislature, but there was concern that Gov. Mitt Romney would not sign it.  I reached out to Beth Myers, who handled political matters for the governor, and made the best case I could on Alec’s behalf. Beth responded favorably, and the governor signed the bill. Those are the moments that you never forget, when people do the right thing for no reason other than it’s the right thing to do.

There was one task Alec asked me to fulfill that I could not accomplish.  I failed to get a proper obituary for him in the Boston Globe.  That was on his list of “things for Jim to do,” and it proved to be the most difficult and elusive request to fulfill.  I have succeeded and failed at many things in my life, and often they fade into memory, but this failure remains sharp and vivid 10 years later.

In November that year a memorial service was held in King’s Chapel.  Alec being Alec, he had orchestrated the entire event in the months before his death, deciding who would speak, and in what order, and what music would be played.  Former Senate president Bob Travaglini was there, as was Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, and a long list of people who knew and respected Alec from his days in public service.  People who knew Alec from his tenure on the Fenway Community Health Center Board and his work with the Massachusetts Lesbian & Gay Bar Association were there as well.

Ten years have gone by, and I wonder and worry sometimes about how the passage of time will gradually diminish Alec’s memory.  The Lesbian and Gay Bar Association (officially now the “MLGBTQ Bar Association” – as I said a lot can happen in 10 years) annually awards the Alexander G. Gray, Jr., Scholarship Award to a law student to help defray school expenses, a fitting gesture of remembrance and respect.  But time is relentless and harsh and it has no conscience.

I write this remembrance of Alec in part to share his memory and keep it alive. I write it to recognize a public servant who brought complete commitment to his work, caring to his public clients, and courage to his life.  Perhaps most important, I write it to remind myself, and those of you reading this, that having friends who are constant and loyal and true is a rare and wonderful thing, and if you have someone like that in your life treasure it.

One thing that has become clear to me in the past 10 years, 10 years without Alec to turn to as a reliable confidant and sounding board, is that there comes an inflection point in one’s life where the question that resonates most is: “To what end?”  And the only answer, the compelling answer, is found in your values.

David Brooks’ recent book, The Road to Character, is a meditation on values. Brooks writes about moving from what he calls one’s resume virtues to one’s eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are those we adopt as we move up the career ladder; the eulogy virtues relate to what we’d like people to say about us when we die.  Brooks asks us to consider the implications to our own lives as we navigate between our resume and eulogy virtues, and proposes that while “we are never as virtuous as we think we are,” we shouldn’t abandon the impetus to give purpose to our lives by following our values.  The kind of perspective that is required to understand and acknowledge the truth of that observation is the kind of perspective that comes with the passage of time, tenacity of will, and, on occasion, tears.

Alec wasn’t perfect, and he wouldn’t want to be thought of that way.  He wouldn’t let sentimentality, or the convenient forgetfulness that often comes with the passage of time, get in the way of the truth. But he was one of the most extraordinary and memorable people I’ve ever met.  Long before he knew of his illness, he lived his life according to his eulogy virtues, following his values, making good things happen for other people.

Meet the Author

A lot can happen in 10 years, memories fade and are distorted by time, but those of us who knew him feel his absence still.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.