Helen T. Gray, a former faith and religion editor at The Kansas City Star whose journalistic career spanned over four decades, died Saturday following an illness.
She was 81.
When she was hired in 1965, Gray was The Star’s second Black reporter and its first Black female reporter. In 1971 she was named the religion editor, a position she held until her retirement in early 2013.
“It’s a loss for Kansas City. She was an amazing force as a religion writer and editor. I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a journalist who was as gracious and warmhearted as Helen,” said Mary Lou Nolan, a former assistant managing editor for features at The Star. “It was really a distinctive thing about her.
“She always found something positive,” Nolan said. “I don’t know if a person can be ecumenical, if that’s a term you can apply to people, but she was all about faith being a positive force in our community and in our lives and always trying to bring people together through her work.
“She was really one of a kind.”
During the early part of her career, Gray covered the local civil rights struggle and interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. who spent a short layover in Kansas City. Gray was the only female reporter among a gaggle of photographers and broadcast journalists who surrounded King at the downtown airport.
In an interview with The Star in 2013, Gray recalled how she managed to speak directly with the civil rights leader.
“I was trying to work my way toward him through all the news cameras when he saw me and made a path for me to walk beside him,” Gray told reporter Edward M. Eveld in a news article announcing her retirement from The Star. “And that’s how I interviewed him, walking next to him.”
Gray also cover the riots in Kansas City following King’s assassination. She wrote extensively about the racism, discrimination and quality of life issues Black people in Kansas City faced.
“Working alongside Helen was a joy,” said Greg Farmer, The Star’s executive editor. “By the time I met her, she was already a legend. But you never would have known it. She was the epitome of class, and through her example she challenged us every day to be the best versions of ourselves. I’m forever grateful.”
Helen T. Gray as faith editor
During her tenure as faith editor, Gray reported on major faith organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the ordination of women, the upheaval and cultural changes in the Catholic Church.
Her work was recognized by press associations in Kansas and Missouri. She received awards from several groups including the Religion News Association.
“Helen was a longtime, well-respected journalist — especially in the faith community,” said Lewis W. Diuguid, a former vice president, editorial page writer and columnist at The Star.
“She covered all aspects of religion and she did it well, adhering to all of the canons of good journalism. Among her peers at The Star, Helen was the longstanding senior Black staffer, and everyone looked up to her for the knowledge and experience she was able to share with people. She was an exceptional human being, and I miss her.”
Diuguid said the Kansas City Association of Black Journalists, an affiliate chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, honored Gray with the group’s first lifetime achievement award in 1997.
Yvette Walker, vice president and editorial page editor at The Star, fondly recalled working with Gray.
“Helen was the epitome of grace and kindness. She cared more about people than getting the story, but she also was known for being an excellent reporter,” Walker said. “I worked with her in the features department, and she was always welcoming and willing to go the extra mile for her colleagues.”
‘Consummate Christian and a prayer warrior’
Gray, a native of New Jersey, graduated from Syracuse University with degrees in journalism and political science. She minored in religion and later earned a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University in New York.
As an undergraduate student at Syracuse, Gray, then known as Helen Gott, was the first black member of the Sigma Delta Tau, a white sorority on campus.
At Syracuse, Gray dated standout running back Ernie Davis, who later became the first Black player to win the Heisman Trophy and was immortalized in the 2008 movie, “The Express.”
While living in Kansas City, Gray married a Baptist minister, David L. Gray, who served as pastor of Pleasant Green Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas from 1959 to 1996 before he died.
Gray taught Sunday School for more than 40 years until her health began to decline, said Jarvis L. Collier, the church’s current pastor.
“She was a consummate pastor’s wife, a consummate Christian and a prayer warrior,” Collier said. “I have nothing but sadness and appreciation for her contribution to the life of our church.”
Relatives and friends remembered Gray as a woman of deep religious faith who found strength in serving the church and helping others.
“She was first and foremost a wonderful and caring, spiritual individual,” said her brother Ron Gott.
Gray is survived by her son David, four grandchildren, a brother and numerous friends and relatives. Funeral services were pending on Monday.