Dr. David Gray
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Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

Old wisdom states that to move men to action, you have to move their hearts. To me, David Gray was a leader with such capability, putting the much needed heart and soul back into disability-research policy. Although a rigorous scientist himself, David believed people were foremost, and, as such, the scientific process should be subservient to their needs, not the other way around. Although this may seem self-evident in 2015, this was often not the case when David joined the government over 30 years ago. He felt research priorities should be based on the true needs of individuals with disabilities, not just what able-bodied scientists and medical professionals assumed were the priorities. As a result of his convictions, many different, much needed research areas started being emphasized.

I first met David in 1981 when I joined NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). He had been at the Institute for a relatively short period of time through an interagency personal agreement (IPA) with the State of Minnesota. His office was so tiny he could barely maneuver his power wheelchair, tread marks being left behind on the walls when he backed up. Just getting into the building required care because the wheelchair ramp had a dangerously steep slope. Often when David went down it, images from the Wide World of Sports’ infamous “agony-of-defeat” ski-jump scene flashed into my mind as I anticipated David going airborne.

Although much of David’s government career was characterized by the development of enlightened disability policy at the highest level, it didn’t start that way. During his initial IPA appointment, his NICHD supervisors really didn’t know what this exceedingly capable individual with a severe physical disability could handle As such, they essentially assigned him a make-work project, specifically reviewing and preparing a report on NICHD-sponsored Down-Syndrome research. It became the never-ending project that only someone who has worked in the government can truly appreciate. Repeatedly, his report went up the Institute chain of command for review, came back down with suggested changes, was modified in response, and once again was sent forward for feedback – over and over again, ad nauseam. Although his appointment to his permanent position allowed him to eventually escape from this bureaucratic black hole, I suspect when David is knocking on heaven’s pearly gates, he will be sent back to finish his Down-Syndrome report, now festering in some filing cabinet in the bowels of NICHD.

Perhaps due to our Minnesota connections, Dave and I became good friends, and it was through this friendship that I acquired a true appreciation for the multidimensional issues surrounding spinal cord injury, a disorder that became a focus of much of my career. In addition to becoming my mentor, we became partners in crime, so to speak a fifth column questioning sacrosanct, organizational dogma and thinking. Joined by other NICHD staffers, we would routinely meet for lunch in his now much larger office. In addition to overall socializing, this collegial, convivial setting often catalyzed stimulating, productive conversations and fostered relationships that subtly influenced policy development on many levels. Demonstrating that true power comes from the soul energy within and is unaffected by physical disability, David became the group’s ringleader, idea man, and force, creating ripples of change and new thought that spread throughout the organization.

Nevertheless, these loftier interactions were consistently counterbalanced by the humor, hijinks, and practical jokes needed to offset the Chinese-trip-torture tedium and stress of government work. I often chuckle when I recall the numerous slice-of-life experiences dealing with David:

For example, David often came up with some extraordinarily politically incorrect disability humor, which only he could get away with but was not especially appreciated by our straight-laced supervisors. For example, David would ask what do you call a quad hanging on a wall? Answer: Art. Or what do you call a quad lying on a door stoop? Answer: Matt.

Then there was the time that we were attending a conference focused on reproductive issues in women with disabilities. The Director of the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), a woman, told the audience that David was so sensitive to women’s issues that they had made him an honorary woman. Although stated in great sincerity, no man wants to be known as an honorary woman, especially in front of his male colleagues. It’s not the sort of commendation you highlight on your resume

Whenever we went someplace, he had to drive his accessible van. For years, I thought he was a very evolved driver with a higher level of consciousness because if someone cut him off, he’d simply wave in response. I finally realized, however, that he wasn’t waving but giving the other driver the “quad” finger, which resembled a wave due to a lack of finger control but with vastly different energy behind it.

In yet another example, David once challenged me to an arm-wrestling contest in front of colleagues, clearly a situation with no upside for me. As an able-bodied individual, losing to a quad wouldn’t look good, yet little would be gained by beating him. Although virtually having no grip, in fact, David had considerable arm strength for a very narrow range of movement, but once past this range he had nothing. Perhaps a cop-out decision, I chose to resolve this dilemma by arm wrestling him to a draw.

Finally, David and I were constantly pulling pranks on each other, taking turns being the victim. Because it reached a level where we started questioning the reality of situations, we periodically had to call truces, fragile arrangements that lasted only until one of us got inspired again. The implications of the pranks started dangerously escalating, for example, David even returning a nonexistent phone call to the White House after he had applied to be Director, NIDRR. Chaos theory claims that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Sahara can create an air disturbance, triggering a chain of events that eventually results in a hurricane in the Caribbean. Although David had stellar qualifications and political connections, I’ve always wondered whether my seemingly innocuous message that the White House had called was the butterfly wing flap that catalyzed his eventual Presidential appointment.

Unfortunately, his NIDRR tenure was during a period in which Department of Education agencies faced draconian hiring freezes. Although he had a big, multimillion dollar program budget, he lacked the staff to adequately manage it. I joked that he was the only Institute director that could sit his entire staff around his office conference table. As such, he eventually returned to NICHD, a move that ultimately greatly benefitted NICHD.

Reflecting that every challenge bears the seeds of future opportunity, with his now greatly expanded policy experience, he was able to spearhead the development of the Congressionally mandated National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research (NCMRR). Although getting credit for your accomplishments in the government is always questionable at best, David was clearly the force behind the creation of this Center; it was his baby. Once again, however, he lacked the staff needed to get the Center up and running. Fortunately, now a division director, I had sufficient staff to help him, demonstrating how friendship can surmount many obstacles. Our collaboration was quite rewarding when after a difficult gestation, NIH gave birth to NCMRR, providing an important, much-needed emphasis on rehabilitation research.

Soon after, our NIH collaborations wound down. I departed NIH, becoming Director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Spinal Cord Research and Education Foundations, and a few years later, David moved on to Washington University, where he channeled his passion for disability research and his extensive policy experience into programs at more of a hands-on University level. We maintained our friendship over the years, periodically reveling in our NIH glory days. David even became my best man at my 2007 wedding. Overall, his friendship, insights, and passion has had a profound and lasting influence on my career in all of its permutations.