My friend died in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire
To Russel Oscar Gray who will be forever 23 years old
In Memory of Russell Gray, from Youngstown, Ohio
We all have them. Personal moments burned indelibly in one’s mind. We remember what we were doing, precisely, at the moment we learn of momentous events, be they public and national in origin, or personal and all the more painful…
For my parents it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the day Franklin Roosevelt died, the moment they learned their first and then their last parent died, for most of my generation it is when we learned of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King,and for me, the moment my father died, and also, for me, the moment I learned of the untimely death of a fantastic guy who had become my friend in college, whose name was Russell Gray.
I am a little surprised to be thinking of Russ today, the day before my 56th birthday, but I am also pleased. He should be remembered. He should be turning 56 sometime this year as well, instead, he will always be 23 years old, a freshly minted 5th grade science teacher.
Sitting at this keyboard the pain bites me again as sharply as it did that day 30 some years ago when my college roommate, Mark Polanka, reached me by phone with the unfathomable news that Russ was dead, and worse, that he’d died two plus weeks earlier in a tragedy that had flared fiercely on the national news, the fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, that snuffed out 165 lives, on a warm Saturday evening, May 28, 1977.
The pain will pass, I know, and when it is supplanted by the memories of two years living on the same corridor in a Western College dorm, it will be incidental.
Russ was one of the “good” guys, he was solid, well intentioned, a little goofy, somewhat a romantic but on first glance I remember thinking, “what a dork”. He had a cheerful, sometimes slightly goofy grin, and his mother and older sister bought his jeans three sizes too large, so they fit like khakis, in 1972, this was not *cool*. In a world where a significant portion of the male students at the time were in college to avoid the draft, dorm halls were rank with the smell of pot every evening, and the massacre at Kent State University was a scant two years earlier, he was hell bent on becoming an underpaid teacher, and this too did not seem cool.
Well, yea, I had a lot of maturing to do.
As the Freshman year progressed I learned Russ had a great sense of humor, an unparalleled sense of fun, and one heck of a solid work ethic. He understood how much each hour of class time cost his mother, and never missed a class, he was never late for his work-study obligation. When a standard course load was 4 courses, he took five. He did the work, put in his time at his work-study job, was heavily involved in several theatre department plays, and, if you ever asked him for help with something, was right there, with his silly grin. I thought I was going to be a great novelist and took classes on Kerouac, Steinbeck, Vonnegut. and E.B. White. Russ took courses in lesson planning and student teaching.
Russ had apparently accompanied his girlfriend to a retirement party for another elementary school teacher, Ona May Mayfield, who was retiring from Wayne Elementary School, in Wayne County, Ohio. I was not surprised to learn that Russ and his date were the youngest teachers in that group of 36. The guy I knew would have thought it entirely appropriate to honor someone who’d spent their career teaching, and I’m willing to bet that he’d helped to make sure the elders got out of the room first. Which, of course, made it all the more likely he would have been overcome by the cyanide gas the upholstery and carpets were giving off as they burned. He was badly burned, we were told, we were also told it looked like he was trying to shelter the young woman beneath him.
Russ was among the last of the bodies identified, as it was apparently his date, Ann Louise Beer who worked in the Wayne Township Schools. It might otherwise have been her who would have first noticed he hadn’t checked in for a while, but she died with him.
Theresa Gray, Russ’s mother, lived in Youngstown, Ohio, a four or five hour drive from Hamilton Township, where Russ was embarking on his career as an elementary school science teacher. It was only after she hadn’t heard from him for a week or so, and then couldn’t reach him, did it began to dawn on her that he might have been involved in that disaster, down by Cincinnati.
At that time I was “taking a year off” from college, and was in my third such year. I was working in my stepfathers’ small town hardware store in Eatontown, NJ. I was an active volunteer Firefighter and EMT in a company that made close to 2,000 runs per year. Around the firehouse we had hashed and rehashed the limited information available on the technical details of the fire. We didn’t have an internet, and it would be a couple of months before the “trade” magazines, such as “Firehouse” would have an opportunity to publish the technical, gritty details of temperatures, water supply, fireground access and first responder stories that would come.
In the seconds after my mother had called up to me in my third floor bedroom that my former roommate Mark Polanka was on the phone, I learned about emotional pain in a new and searing way. I learned that “struck speechless” was not just a phrase, and I learned fate was crueler than I had ever conceived of, as this tragedy in a far away state reached out to touch me personally.
Oscar Gray was a good guy, a good friend.
I am sure he would have become a solid teacher, the kind you look up
after graduation, come back to the school to see. Unfortunately, he did not have the chance to become that solid teacher.
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