Passionate pastor. Skillful politician. Dedicated family man.
William H. Gray was remembered as all of those things during a Saturday memorial service inside Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, a congregation he lead for years before beginning a storied political career.
The former high-ranking member of Congress died suddenly in London on July 1. He was 71 years-old.
“He did it all with a smile on his face and a song in his heart and he never looked down on people, not only for their economic standing, but for their political position.” said former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton was among a number of prominent figures that packed inside Bright Hope’s sanctuary on the corner of 12th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
For nearly 15 years, Gray represented Philadelphia in Congress. He was the first African-American to lead the House Committee on Budget and become majority whip.
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Philadelphia) serves the same district Gray once did. He said Gray helped launch his life of public service.
During Fattah’s first bid for office, Gray threw his support behind him, making a difference in a race for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives that Fattah won narrowly.
“I would not have been elected to the State House or to the Senate or now to my 10 terms in Congress without his initial helping hand to my career,” said Fattah.
Other politicians have claimed the same, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
Childhood friend Rev. Dr. H. Beecher Hicks said that’s what Gray was all about: Setting an example for future generations.
“Bill taught me that no matter how far you go, there is always someone following you who is learning from you,” Hicks said. “A whole generation of college graduates, scientists, physicians and the rest are stretched out across this country all because this preacher knew that someone was following him.”
In 1991, with his political star still shining bright, Gray left Capitol Hill to head the United Negro College Fund. He held that post until 2004.
Before that, many believed Gray was well on his way to becoming Speaker of the House.
Gray died suddenly while attending the Wimbledon Tennis Championship in London. He leaves behind a wife and three sons.
During Saturday’s service, Justin Gray shared that he spoke with one of the first responders who rushed to his father’s side. The medic was with Gray when he died.
Justin and his brothers had traveled with their father to London, but were returning to the U.S. when their father died.
“He wanted me to know that he, like my father, had dedicated a good portion of his life to faith, that he and my father prayed together before, as he said, he simply slipped away,” said Justin.
“The totality of these events give my family peace and great solace,” he continued. “He was with the people he loved, he was at the place he loved, and he left this world holding the hand of a man of faith.”
Funeral services will reportedly be announced soon.