Remembering Ralph Gray, professor of public speaking




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Yes, I remember Ralph Gray being both an English and a public speaking instructor or assistant professor.

When I entered RIT in September 1963, I’d had been somewhat proficient in writing skills in high school and prep school, writing news stories for the school papers. Before classes started in 1963, I volunteered for the Reporter staff. Earl Wooton from Pennsylvania was the editor and Tony Puskarz from Connecticut was the assistant editor. They asked if I would be going to the freshman outing at the Henrietta cow pasture. Being upperclassmen, they would not be a part of the event. So I said, “Yes.” They said to take a notepad and cover the groundbreaking of the new campus. I was honored to have my byline by this headline of the first issue of the new school year edition of the Reporter: “Class of 68 to be first graduates from new campus.”

The next week we started classes and I entered Ralph Gray’s English class. Ralph Gray was an “individual” as most faculty were clean shaven and wore suits. Mr. Gray had a gray beard and dressed casual. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, beards and casual dress weren’t fashionable in colleges. That first session Mr. Gray gave the class of tenderfoot printing freshmen an essay assignment. I was confident that I would be able to do a masterpiece. I went back to my room and pulled out my new Olivetti portable typewriter. For this generation, this would be a laptop without a Word program. That meant you had to think and type slowly and if you made too many errors and erasures, you’d start over. I turned in my masterpiece with few erasures (no Wite-Out then). Come the third session, every student’s paper was returned with an F.

Some students were so enraged they quit. I did not. Every bit of criticism of my paper and all others were well deserved. That was a most influential lesson, at the beginning of any course. If you take a course, don’t feel that you are so smart you can’t learn from your mistakes. I did finally get a B grade for the course, and I did continue to write articles for the Reporter.

Later that year, Mr. Gray was the public speaking teacher. Bill Longcor ’69 was right. Ralph Gray always gave interesting assignments. The exercises have long endured and given me confidence for the past 50 years to address large gatherings as a public official, historian and biographer. I still remember a classmate who demonstrated making meatloaf with only one of two eggs he brought. Another student demonstrated proper folding of clothing for a suitcase. My most memorable exercise was introducing a speaker. Having taken a lot of ribbing from bearing the same name as the composer and head of the Eastman School of Music, I decided to search a profile of Howard Hanson. Ironically, he was born in Omaha, Neb., about the same year my grandparents were married in that city. I can attribute my continued interest in compiling profiles of historical and common folks ever since that assignment for Ralph Gray’s classes in both English and public speaking.