Gary & Adella Gray: Finding Love Miles From Home

Adella and Gary Gray crossed the Atlantic Ocean in December 2021 to celebrate 60 years of marriage. It was fitting, considering they met one another in the early 1960s when living hundreds of miles from their home states. 

They went to London in particular so Adella and other choir members from their Fayetteville church could join members of three Houston area choirs as they performed in St. Paul’s Cathedral and other centuries-old cathedrals in Winchester and Salisbury. Gary enjoyed sightseeing with some non-singer friends who came along.

Music has always been a part of Adella’s life. She sings soprano in the Central United Methodist Church choir. She directed a Methodist church choir when she and Gary lived in Louisville, Kentucky, and later directed one at the Second Baptist Church in Monticello. Before their sons were in school, she also taught private voice and piano lessons in their home.

The Grays have shared a lifetime of travel, exploring other geographies, foods, cultures and meeting new people. They met the summer after she finished college when he was in the Navy, stationed in Maryland. She’d applied to be a summer missionary through the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board and was placed in Maryland. Her home church just happened to be the church Gary attended. With the pastor’s blessing, they had their first date the Sunday that they met. When she left 10 weeks later, they were engaged. She started her job teaching music in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and they married a few months later on Dec. 26, 1961. 

Finding Purpose

They both were raised in farming families and each had one older brother. Her family was in the Richmond area of central Kentucky, and his was in White County in central Arkansas. 

Gary apprenticed with his dad, who was a carpenter, and also did construction in high school. “My dad was either building someone else’s house or remodeling ours,” he said. 

After graduating from Searcy High School, Gary attended Arkansas State University and Harding University for one year each, and he drove a tractor in the summers for the pea harvest in DeKalb, Illinois. Enlisting with the Navy in 1958, he served four years in Bainbridge, Maryland.

Adella’s family moved to Lexington when she was 7 because her dad’s health prevented him from farming. A tobacco farmer, her dad had smoked since age 7, which caused him to develop asthma and emphysema. 

Her paternal grandparents moved with them from the farm to Lexington. She was close to her grandmother, and her grandfather often walked her the two blocks to school. She got very involved in music in junior high and high school.

Though a female cousin and an uncle had gone to college, her parents assumed only her brother would go. But, her junior year of high school, Adella decided that she wanted to continue her education, and she chose Georgetown College, a small private liberal arts school. She had a music scholarship and majored in music education. Once she and Gary married, he returned to college and earned a sociology degree from the University of Louisville.

Gary spent a year at the Kent School of Social Work, and then they moved back to his hometown of Searcy. He later got his master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University.

In Arkansas, Gary worked with children and families at the Department of Human Services and then went to work for Arkansas Baptist Family and Childcare, which operated a children’s home in Monticello. He helped make a plan for the children to leave the home rather than remain institutionalized for years.

When Adella was directing the junior choir at First Baptist Church in Monticello, she invited a Black teenage trumpet player to perform in a cantata. The trumpeter brought his family to the Sunday afternoon rehearsal at the church on the town’s main street.

After practice, a deacon pulled her aside and noted that there had never been a Black person inside the church. “And I said, ‘Well there has been now.’ Can you imagine walking by that building all these years and never getting to go in?” When she got home, she asked Gary to escort that family inside and sit with them for the evening service.

Gary also integrated the children’s home in the early 1970s, first bringing in a young Black girl and, later, a junior high boy. 

Serving Others

In 1973, the couple moved to Fayetteville, where Gary opened the regional office for Arkansas Baptist Family and Childcare, which he directed for 13 years. He found the work rewarding, though there were many tough cases, including a family of five siblings who had to be separated into four different homes. After that, he went into private practice as a marriage and family therapist. While at Arkansas Baptist, he also taught social work as an adjunct professor at the U of A for a few years.

In Fayetteville, Adella stayed home with their two sons until the younger one started school. She was interim music director at Leverett Elementary School for a semester and then decided to pursue her master’s degree in counseling at the 

University of Arkansas. While studying higher education counseling, she worked in the campus resource center and designed a program for students on academic probation, which included study skills, counseling and tutoring. After she graduated in 1976, she spent the next five years as the first academic coordinator for the U of A athletics department. 

Adella took 13 more hours to secure a public school counseling degree. She started in Prairie Grove schools for three years and then spent 17 more in Springdale schools. Just after the 1998 Jonesboro school shooting, she helped start the WatchDOGS program at George Elementary, working with a parent who wanted to create a way for fathers to become more active in the school. 

“I really enjoyed helping families any way I could. A lot more than just counseling the child, I would try to work closely with the parents,” she said. They both served on various boards in the community, including Northwest Arkansas Rape Crisis and Peace at Home Family Shelter. 

Family Matters

They had their first son, Kent, after Gary finished his undergraduate degree and waited four years to have their second, Joel. Adella’s parents lived in Arizona later on due to her father’s health issues, so the whole family visited at Christmas, and she and the boys went out during the summers. 

Both sons got their degrees from the University of Arkansas, attending back-to-back. The family had always enjoyed traveling, so, not surprisingly, both sons left Arkansas to start their lives. Kent first landed an accountant job in New York and then later moved to the San Francisco area, where he pursues business opportunities. Joel married Kathy Stills, from Prairie Grove. After finishing their graduate work in Wyoming, they returned to Fayetteville; he’s a licensed professional counselor, and she teaches kindergarten in Prairie Grove.

The Grays have five grandchildren, who call them Granddella and Grandgary. When their first grandson was born, the couple took him on adventures in a small RV they called the Jakemobile. They later took their twin 8-year-old grandsons on a cruise.

From 2007-18, Adella represented Ward 1 on the Fayetteville City Council. She’s most proud of two ordinances she carried: anti-smoking and civil rights. The first measure would have extended to bars the ban on smoking in restaurants that passed a few years earlier. The civil rights protection ordinance was intended to protect LGBTQ+ individuals who felt they were being treated unfairly or had even been discriminated against. After 10 hours of public discussion and debate lasting until 4 a.m., the measure passed 6-2 in April 2014.

“It was a very eye-opening experience for me, to see that people felt like individuals ought to be treated the way they were expecting these folks to be treated,” Adella said. “They thought it was perfectly all right. It was very much of a wakeup call for me that people even felt that way.”

She also ran for the state Legislature in 2012 and made a good showing against the incumbent with many enthusiastic supporters.

Coming Home

Through the years, the Grays have taken several cruises, including a few in the Caribbean and others exploring Alaska, the Greek islands, and the Danube River. They took a bus tour of Ireland and have a time share they’ve used in Canada. 

Since moving to Butterfield Trail Village in 2019, they started going on trips planned by the BTV activities director. The pandemic halted those for a while, but they’re hoping they can soon travel again. 

Adella brought two of her 25 rose bushes from their former home, and she enjoys container gardening on the back patio. Gary grows green beans that Adella loves in a community garden plot. She frequently swims at the BTV pool, and Gary gets in his workouts on the treadmill and weight machines.

They keep up with world events watching 60 Minutes, Meet the Press and Dateline. They enjoy taking the BTV shuttle to performances at the Walton Arts Center and TheatreSquared. They spend time with friends and regularly play Mexican Train dominoes with three other couples. And one of the most rewarding aspects of living at BTV is continuing to meet people — from all backgrounds, cultures and experiences — without even leaving home.