By Mitchell Willetts
Tom and Mary Gray have been together “forever and a day,” and in that time, have helped to preserve the livelihoods and the history of Malheur County in a way that many in Vale don’t want to forget.
Friends and family, neighbors and colleagues lobbied the 4th of July Rodeo Board to name the husband and wife this year’s grand marshals.
The 18 letters of recommendation recount decades of memories and moments from a shared life. They paint a picture of a poet, pilot, sometimes-politician and at-all-times father, and of a doting mother and self-trained historian, whose community comes second only to her kids.
Come July, they will be waving from on top of a parade carriage through Main Street, becoming a part of the rodeo’s history.
Tom and Mary are transplants to Oregon, meeting at Colorado A&M, trading vows in 1955, and moving to Vale on Memorial Day 1956, where they still reside. They weren’t even settled a year when torrential rains drowned Vale in 1957.
As one of the few livestock veterinarians in the region, Tom spent most of the flood in his car, navigating roads that overnight turned to rapids, tending to animals injured and sick. When the waters began spilling into the courthouse, he was on the first floor, waist deep in February rain, moving records to higher ground.
“I just couldn’t find enough to do,” he said.
Over the next six decades, he found plenty more to do.
Tom tried his hand at public service, stepping up to become the Vale mayor for a two-year term, starting in January of ‘87 to December of ‘88. He said he faced the threat of recall when he fought, and won, to rescue the Vale Hotel and Grand Opera House from demolition.
“The showplace for the town was that hotel right there. They tried to tear that old building down, and as mayor I wouldn’t let them do it,” Tom said.
The people pushing to remove the hotel, which is being restored, wanted to replace it with a parking lot.
“So they tried to recall me and I survived that. Thumbed my nose at them,” he said.
Like Tom, Mary Gray has a passion for the past, and a dedication to saving it.
Rinehart Stone House, built in 1872, was the first permanent building raised in Malheur County. Constructed to withstand attack and dangers of the Oregon Trail, it nearly fell to time and indifference. In Mary, it found a protector.
The sandstone structure was already decrepit by the time she began to restore it in the 90’s, looking as bad or worse on the inside as it did out. Mary spent years cataloging its contents and collecting items of significance from around Vale.
By 1995, Rinehart was open again, a museum curated by Mary herself. Its walls, which once housed harried westward masses, are a home once again for what they left behind.
The Grays have had a busy 60 years in Vale, but through it all, have almost always made time for the rodeo. From selling hamburgers and hotdogs to benefit the Junior Chamber of Commerce to providing on-call veterinarian services for rodeo stock, they have been integral to the July celebrations, though maybe never more than right now.