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He may have been a fly boy once, but today he's as down to earth as they come. No longer navigating harrowing combat missions above Vietnam, Gardner B. Gray '64 has traded his aviator glasses for a cowboy hat.
These days, Gray can be found watching over his thousand-acre ranch in the southwest corner of South Dakota, though finding him is easier said than done. It's a 20-mile drive from the nearest town, and that's 20 miles of South Dakota driving. Gray makes the rounds in a diesel-churning Dodge pickup truck with 185,000 miles on it. He says it's going to hit 500,000 miles without a problem, which is good since he has to cut through his neighbor's cow pasture just to find a road into town. "Generally, when people come here, we either know they're coming or they're completely lost," he said.
That's how this Colby cowboy likes it.
Tucked away alongside Black Hills National Forest with his wife, Lynn, and a handful of horses, he says it doesn't take much to keep him happy. It's a lesson he learned early.
Fresh out of Colby, Gray joined the Navy and found his way into the VFP 63 fighter squadron. After more than 100 combat missions, his squadron had the grisly distinction of having the service's highest fatality rate. When he wasn't in combat, he was flying reconnaissance, skimming just over North Vietnamese strongholds in a plane fitted with cameras.
After the war, he took a job as a pilot for Trans World Airlines, flying out of Boston and New York City. Once you've barnstormed mobile infantry, however, he says flying the "friendly skies" is a cinch.
"There's no comparison to having an eight-mile straightaway into St. Louis and trying to land on an aircraft carrier while the thing's pitching ten degrees up and down," he said. "It's night and day."
But piloting is a young man's game, he said: "The older you get, the harder it is to start again, to start anything over."
But that's exactly what he did in 1990, packing his bags and shipping out to South Dakota.
"Most people wouldn't like it. They'd say it's too quiet, too remote," he said. "Most people want to be surrounded by people. I don't know why they do, but we're very herd oriented."
And Gray knows herds. At one point he had more than 30 horses on his ranch. Until his back started acting up, he saddled up with the best of them.
It's not a cattle ranch, so maybe that makes him ineligible for the title, but Gardner Gray is as close to a cowboy as they come. He only wears Wrangler jeans, because Levi's are too politically correct. Cowboy hats are the only headgear he owns. He drives a tractor and shoots the same vintage single-action rifle as Will Rogers.
With three grown children and lots of time on his hands, Gray says he's got everything he needs. "After you've lived for a period of time where any time you go out could be your day, where they could have just made a bullet with your name on it, well, you get used to that existence," he said.
"It's quite an amazing prospect, that you can die tomorrow, but it takes your circle of requirements and it narrows it down. If you've got three square meals a day, a roof over your head and your health, everything else is gravy."
-Matt Apuzzo '00
Diversity Call Renewed: Students, President Bro Adams, faculty and others join in effort to appreciate and accentuate differences.
Making Waves: An inside look at the news you love to hear--from Colbians.
A Simple Feast: Wylie Dufresne '92 is one of the hottest chefs in New York City.
President's Page: President Bro Adams on the court and affirmative action.
Alumni Reunion 2001
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College Colby Magazine 4181
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