Driving in Northwest Indiana, Chicago and the Midwest, seeing bright-red semi-trucks sporting the iconic Jack Gray Transport logo emblazoned with a wings-outstretched eagle, has been a familiar sight for more than 60 years.
The company's owner John S. Gray, 88, of Munster, died Sunday.
He lived in the Briar Ridge community, where he was neighbors with my newspaper publisher of today, Chris White, as well as Bill Howard, the previous publisher of The Times, and also was a next-door neighbor of one of our longtime former news reporters, Debra Gruszecki.
He also faithfully read my newspaper columns each day. Of course, he also read my columns looking for one certain bolded name in print: my father, Chester.
Besides his career in farming, my dad also worked for Mr. Gray as a daily truck driver for 38 years until my dad retired in 1994.
Previously, my dad had worked for Mr. Gray's father, John Gray Sr., and his wife, Bernice, until son John "Jack" Gray took over the business in 1951 after he graduated from college in Colorado Springs. Father John Gray died in 1975 and Bernice lived until age 95, when she died in 1998.
When Mr. Gray took over the family business in 1951, it was based in Hammond. He then moved it to Gary in 1968, operating at the International Port at Portage in 1975. He won the general cargo stevedore contract in 1989 and once boasted more than 1,000 employees with trucking terminals not only around Northwest Indiana but also as far as Wisconsin, and with truck-hauling contracts in 48 states.
Other company divisions like Old Dutch Sand and Lakes and Rivers also were part of his diverse holdings under the Jack Gray Transport Inc. business umbrella.
And nearly every year, The Times faithfully runs a front-page business story written by reporter colleagues like Robert Kasarda, Joyce Russell, Carmen McCollum, Joseph S. Pete and others about the arrival of "the first international ship into the Port" every start of April with ships arriving from Poland, the Netherlands and other overseas locations.
Gray is credited with turning the port into one of the premiere ports in the International Great Lakes maritime community for cargo handling, and hailed by the longshoremen. Gray took Indiana's International Port at Portage to 1.1 million tons by 1995 from 110,000 tons in 1988. The port's wages and fringes had been less than $300,000 per year in 1988 and grew to more than $3.9 million by 1995 and continued to grow as reported in The Times. In just those early years alone, Jack Gray/Lakes and Rivers invested more than $15 million in equipment, including cranes, forklifts and front-end loaders, and managerial and sales staff.
My oldest brother Tom, 57, who works running a payloader at the port for the Lakes and Rivers operations, will celebrate his 40th anniversary next month working for Mr. Gray. It was his first job, secured for him by my dad when my brother was 18 and eager to go to work as soon as he graduated from high school.
Mr. Gray, who was born and raised in the Pullman-Roseland neighborhood of Chicago, is survived by his fourth wife, Sue, who he was married to for 28 years, as well as his three children from his first marriage to deceased wife Aida, of South Holland, who died at age 82 in 2011. They are daughters Donna, of Schererville, Gayle of Milwaukee, and son John Gray III, of Lakes of the Four Seasons. He is also survived by his sister Pat Gray-Thomas, of Valparaiso, while his other sister, Betty Woodin, died in 2008.
His funeral procession Thursday from Kish Funeral Home in Munster was led by one of his company's red semi trucks guiding the hearse all the way to his family's burial cemetery near Bass Lake, Ind., where his parents are buried near the family's weekend lake cottage.