Charles Gray's Biography

CHARLES GRAY, ACTIVIST
1925 - 2006

A lifelong activist for peace and social justice, he did research, wrote, planned and organized campaigns, trained less experienced activists, and put his body on the line both in demonstrations and in Gandhi-inspired fasts. Once he fasted for forty days. The many causes which engaged his energies and creativity in the course of his long life included organizing for the United World Federalists, building integrated housing for African-Americans, bearing witness to the oppression of indigenous peoples in Latin America, and working to improve conditions for the homeless in his hometown, Eugene. What is more, thanks to the generosity and flexibility of his first wife, Leslie Brockelbank, his role in establishing the Mackenzie River Gathering Foundation and designing its policies led to some of his most enduring contributions to society.


In his fifties, Charles Gray became a groundbreaking exponent and exemplar for the simple living movement. Although he had a PhD in sociology and had for a time worked as a college professor, he chose to drop out of the mainstream economy and for 18 years, starting in 1979, contrived to get by on no more than what he calculated to be his fair share of the world's wealth. When in 1997 he vacated the 7 x 12 foot travel trailer in which he'd lived for several years, to move in with his third wife--an ardent activist but doggedly middle-class--his lifestyle changed. Still he continued to wear secondhand clothes and ride his hand-me-down bike whenever possible. He remained personally thrifty and a regular contributor to progressive causes until his dying day.

Early years

Charles Howard Gray was born to a middle class Methodist family in Eugene, Oregon in 1925. His father developed tuberculosis and the family's fortunes slid downward; when Charles was eight, his parents got divorced. Throughout the Depression, his mother struggled to support her four children by managing buildings in Portland and the San Francisco Bay Area. Charles, the youngest and her favorite, worked for her as a janitor. During World War II he quit school at fifteen to take a series of blue-collar jobs, rarely suppressing his adventurous spirit to stay at any of them very long though he did spend one joyful year working in Yosemite.


At sixteen he had read and been greatly influenced by the writings of Gandhi. Eventually his draft board granted exemption from military service to this young pacifist with a slight heart murmur who at the time was working on a farm - then considered a vital part of the war effort. In his late teens, Charles completed high school and moved on to the University of Oregon where, in his freshman year, he met the girl who would become his first wife.


Leslie Brockelbank, a year older than Charles, was already a college senior. After VE-Day they worked together to organize a food drive for needy people in Europe. In 1946 they married. Though Leslie had never told her new husband that she was an heiress, when her wealthy grandfather died the day after their wedding, she came into a large portfolio of stocks and other assets. Soon they moved to Colorado. By 1948 they had a son, Howard, and a daughter, Mary Jane. Charles had enrolled at the University of Denver but though he was a gifted student, completing college was not his primary interest.


He and his wife got involved with the American Friends Service Committee and other socially conscious groups. From 1948-1950, Charles was full-time Colorado field organizer for United World Federalists. He apprenticed himself, without pay, to a Quaker carpenter and built his young family a modest but sturdy house, then built two more homes as part of a plan to racially integrate neighborhoods. During the fifties, he and Leslie served as staff at Lisle Fellowship work camps in Colorado and Jamaica; they also helped to direct a work camp in Mexico for the American Friends Service Committee. While a graduate student in sociology at the University of Colorado, he organized a demonstration against a giant missile display in Denver and participated in actions against a missile base. In 1962, Charles received his PhD.


1962 - 1979

By now his children were young teenagers. The family took off on an around-the-world tour sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. It was an extraordinary opportunity to see many cultures and ways of life - from abject poverty to great riches. That fall Charles joined the sociology department at Colorado State University. But that was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis; scattered around Colorado were numerous potential targets for missile attacks. Soon the family decided it was time to leave. Charles took a teaching position at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and the family moved there. After less than four years, Charles and Leslie decided to return - but by this time both their children had found partners, New Zealanders with whom they would remain for life. This created a difficult separation. In his last years, Charles would work hard to improve his relationship with his beloved son and daughter, who, aside from occasional visits, lived on the other side of the world and by now had raised families of their own.


When Charles and Leslie returned to the States, protests against the Vietnam War were mounting. Peacemaker camps sponsored by the AFSC got them connected with the Movement for a New Society, a mostly Quaker group radicalized by the war. Back in Oregon they brought together a large group of activists who engaged in many projects. These included campaigning against a proposed nuclear power plant and participating in Earth Day. To graphically illustrate the imbalance between the military budget and other federal spending, they painted a huge bar graph that ran for blocks through the University of Oregon campus. Charles and Leslie became tax resisters. Early in the seventies they bought a rundown inn on the Pacific Coast. Charles labored to make it habitable as it became headquarters for training workshops and more playful activities. Around this time, with his wife's complaisance, he came out in favor of open marriage and, as usual, acted on his beliefs.


Nonetheless, he grew ever more uncomfortable with his privileged life. In 1976, he and Leslie agreed to give away $500,000 - half of what was by now their shared fortune - to found the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation (MRG). In unconventional fashion, at an informal gathering at a resort near the scenic McKenzie River, the two let a panel of activists, their friends, decide among what causes their initial donation of $10,000 would be divided. Together they designed the activist board that would make such decisions in the future. (To this day MRG raises money to help nonviolent, progressive social change groups in Oregon. As of August 2013 it had distributed over $13,000,000.) Not long after, Charles decided to give all his remaining wealth away. When Leslie would not do likewise, their marriage ended. Soon he would commit himself to neither owning nor consuming more than his equal share of world income or wealth. He called this plan the World Equity Budget or WEB and for the next eighteen years he would live within its limits.

1980 - 1991

His next major project was an extraordinary effort against the nuclear arms race called the Fast for Life. Along with a new partner, Dorothy Granada, he spent three years organizing a fast which he hoped would involve thousands around the world. (Dorothy, a nurse and a devout Episcopalian, had been director of nursing at the teaching hospital of the University of Chicago.) Ultimately only twelve, including Japanese and French volunteers, committed to an open-ended fast in 1983, but thousands did sympathy fasts. These included six members of Parliament in Britain. Charles fasted for forty days, Dorothy for thirty-nine. They only ended the Fast for Life when - after the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean passenger airliner, causing fierce indignation around the world--it became clear there was no chance it would succeed in changing American policy.


Charles and Dorothy with the European fasters. Solange Fernex, seated at the left in the front row, went on to become a minister in the French government and later served as a member of the European Parliament. Charles and Dorothy are seated in that row at the right.

After recovering from the fast, they studied Spanish so they could join the Witness for Peace long-term team in Nicaragua, where a brutal civil war was raging. There they documented Contra atrocities and hosted delegations seeking to learn the true situation on the ground. Later they toured the United States with an exhibit of photos and poetry from Nicaragua about the war. In 1989 Charles and Dorothy spent six months in Managua with the Friends (Quaker) Center, mostly distributing material aid. For three years thereafter, they lived in a Nicaraguan refugee community where Dorothy established a women's health center. Charles trained local women in carpentry and worked on water purification projects. When the two decided to separate, he returned to Eugene.

1992 - 2006

In 1992 he met Sylvia Hart, who would become his third wife, at sessions of a Quaker economics discussion group held at Eugene Friends Meeting. (Sylvia Hart, a retired librarian and college professor, was also a writer who had numerous publications under her former married name, Sylvia Hart Wright.) In the years that followed, he worked with the Committee in Solidarity with the Central American People, served on the board of a therapy center for victims of torture, led a successful campaign to improve conditions for the homeless in his community, and wrote and lectured widely about the World Equity Budget, the rich-poor gap, and globalization. With Sylvia he was part of an affinity group that blocked a crucial corner in Seattle during the abortive meetings of the World Trade Organization there in 1999. A year and a half later, Charles and Sylvia took a gritty, sometimes harrowing journey across Mexico as international observers accompanying unarmed Zapatista leaders when they caravaned from Chiapas to the capital to speak out on behalf of that nation's underclass. On July 8, 2006, he died of bone cancer.


Tireless in his pursuit of peace and social justice, Charles Gray participated in countless vigils, wrote numerous articles, prepared carefully researched fact sheets, and published a widely distributed poster on global corporate power. He was a leader, a true original, and an inspiration to many.