GW was not Vincent Gray’s first choice. In fact, he almost dropped out his freshman year due to the tough racial climate permeating the campus in 1963.
But Gray stuck it out and has said he is a better man for it.
Forty-seven years later, GW is celebrating Gray.
The day before his inauguration, alumni from GW’s now-defunct chapter of the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity came for the ceremony. They came to celebrate Gray – a brother, alumnus and now, mayor of D.C.
“We thought [Gray] would come in for about 20 minutes, but he ended up staying for three hours,” said Ken Trombly, who graduated from GW in 1970 and is now a trial attorney in D.C. “Here he is the night before the most important day in his life and he is with his old fraternity brothers.”
Leading up to his inauguration and a little more than one week into his tenure as mayor, Gray has shown that his ties to his alma mater run deep.
In his inauguration speech Jan. 2, Gray noted his fraternity brothers.
“I stand here… proud to have been joined today, all these years later, by more than 20 of the brothers of Tau Epsilon Phi, all of us having been bonded by this profound human experience,” Gray said.
On Wednesday, Gray was honored at a GW men’s basketball game and was met on court by four members of his old fraternity intramural basketball team.
Amid the celebration for the first alumnus to become D.C. mayor, Gray’s fraternity brothers gave insight into who the D.C. native is, and what they hope for him as he takes on his new role.
Though Gray was offered baseball scholarships from other colleges, Gray entered GW as a freshman in 1963 – a time when he couldn’t join the GW baseball team because of the color of his skin.
As the first African-American to go through Greek-life rush at GW, Gray was turned away by many fraternities. But TEP member Bruce Bereano said he immediately took a strong liking to Gray.
Bereano, who graduated in 1966, said back then all of the fraternities had provisions in their charters that said “no Negros or Orientals” could be members.
“I got some push back from other members, who were afraid to buck the national charter, and some were just prejudiced,” Bereano said. “I told them I didn’t want to stay in the fraternity if I was going to be with a bunch of racists. I was then assigned to be [Gray’s] big brother.”
The fraternity’s decision to admit non-whites made it infamous on campus.
“We were considered a rogue frat, because we took in black guys,” said Mike Grabow, a TEP brother who graduated in 1968 and is now a real-estate lawyer in Englewood, N.J.
Gray’s fraternity brothers said he became very popular within the fraternity and was voted chancellor – the highest position of the chapter – for two years in a row.
“That was a first, which says something about his leadership,” Trombly said. “It’s a source of pride that my fraternity brothers and friends accepted him and helped make history in a way.”
Trombly added that Gray was deeply admired by many brothers in the fraternity.
“He was someone I looked up to as an older brother and he was a role model for many of us,” Trombly said. “I think that he is an immensely impressive individual; someone you want in politics and someone you want in charge.”
Others said Gray considered joining the fraternity a significant point in his life, because gaining admission into the brotherhood was a challenge.
“[Gray] said that it was so important, because if he had quit trying to get into the fraternity, then he would have quit other things in the future,” Bereano said.
Gray did not return a request for comment for this article.
Although Gray’s fraternity brothers said Gray was popular and a good leader, none of them had any idea he would go on to a bright political future. Gray was a psychology major and started volunteering at the Association for Retarded Citizens during college.
“I absolutely didn’t think he was going to go into politics, and [Gray] didn’t either,” Bereano said.
Each time Gray ran for elected office he was approached by other people who urged him to run, Bereano said.
Gray’s path to politics began when he was appointed to the position of director of D.C.’s Department of Human Services in 1991. He was elected as the Ward 7 councilmember in 2004, became chairman of the council two years later, and in 2010 he defeated incumbent Adrian Fenty in the D.C. Democratic primary.
One of the major issues of the primary election was public education, which was one of the cornerstones of Fenty’s agenda. Gray’s fraternity brothers defended Gray’s ability to lead the public school system, and said it is wrong that people assume he is not for reforming the ailing schools in the District.
“For people to say that Gray won’t support education like Fenty is grossly unfair,” Bereano said. “[Gray] has grown and supported the charter school system, and created the first community college in D.C.”
As most of Gray’s fraternity brothers have returned home since the inauguration, they leave D.C. in what they see as good hands.
“He’s easily the most natural and comfortable leader I’ve ever met,” Grabow said. “It’s not hard to imagine, but I never thought I would personally know the mayor of D.C.”
“I’ve been around politicians all my life,” Bereano said, who has been an Annapolis, Md., lobbyist since 1979. “And [Gray] has almost no ego. He’s not about himself; he’s never been about himself.”
This article was updated on Jan. 10, 2010 to reflect the following changes:
The Hatchet erroneously reported that Ken Trombly graduated in 1966. He graduated in 1970.