Retired judge helping pave the way for diversity on the bench

May 03, 2019Jon Gray ’73 aspired to be a judge by the time he had reached 10th grade, but he figured it would happen toward the end of his legal career.

Nevertheless, at age 34, Gray was appointed to fill a judicial vacancy on the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri.

“I had only been out of law school 10 years when I got the opportunity,” he says. “I thought being a judge would give me the opportunity to help people and bring what I thought was a needed perspective to the collective bench. I’m still concerned about that. As a consequence, I’m still trying to help a number of young lawyers to the bench by helping them navigate the nominations and selection process.”

Judge Jon Gray '73
   Jon Gray ’73

At the time Gray was appointed in 1986, it was common to have an unwritten quota of black judges, specifically one and only one. Gray, who now is partner at the Shook, Hardy & Bacon law firm in Kansas City, has helped change that erroneous thinking.

“If I made any contribution to the profession at all, I would say it’s my efforts to help diversify the bench in my community,” Gray says. “It’s the thing I would most want written on my tombstone.”

Gray was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. His sister, Frances Gray ’71, was already enrolled at Grinnell when Gray was weighing college options. He was accepted several places, but Grinnell offered the best financial aid package.

“The fact Grinnell had a great reputation helped, but the financial aid sealed the deal,” he says. “Looking back, I had a great experience. I was given many opportunities. There were some opportunities I should have taken better advantage of but that was due to the immaturity of youth. However, the extent to which I was challenged academically and my overall academic experience were very good, and I’m grateful for the experience.”

Gray earned a degree in American Studies and received the President’s Award as a member of the Grinnell College Black Arts Ensemble. He also played football for the Pioneers.

“Academics were always the top priority but football was a fun diversion,” he says. “Barry Huff ’73 and I were great friends and roomed together during trips for road games. I wish we could have won more games, but the whole experience was a great bonding opportunity.”

Gray also credited Grinnell for helping him navigate law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“Law school is unlike any other academic pursuit,” he says. “Had I not gone to Grinnell, I probably would have struggled more than I did. You have to develop a style of writing to succeed. Often times, there is no one answer. The correct answer analyzes all the possible answers. It takes a unique ability to recognize and analyze, and I was able to develop that based on the support I received at Grinnell through classroom exercises and a writing tutor.”

After law school, Gray became a partner in the law firm of Gray Payne & Roque, representing individuals and small businesses in civil matters. In 1981, he was appointed as Democratic attorney for the Board of Election Commissioners of Kansas City, Missouri. Gray was appointed Circuit Court Judge by Missouri Governor John Ashcroft in 1986 and was subsequently re-elected to four additional terms over the next 20 years. He presided over civil, criminal, and family court matters.

Gray retired from the bench in 2007. He left the court at 11:30 a.m. on retirement day and was working for Shook, Hardy & Bacon by noon. He offers mediation and arbitration services to parties involved in civil disputes and chairs the firm’s Professional Development Committee.

“I also have recently taken on the issue of lawyer wellness,” Gray says. “There’s a lot of alcoholism and chemical dependency within the legal profession. I’m trying to figure how best to implement wellness initiatives across the firm to our lawyers and professional staff.”

He’s been involved in numerous legal and civic organizations over the years, including four years on the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, which has stadium leases with the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals.

Gray has supported Grinnell in various ways for the past 46 years, from serving as an admission representative in the 1980s to making gifts supporting minority recruiting, the Kimbo Black Cultural Center renovations, financial aid, and the Pioneer Fund.

“It’s important for alumni to support their alma mater,” he says. “If I can to do my part to help to make the institution continue to thrive, then a future student will have the opportunity for an education like I received. The point of that is everyone can do something, even if it’s only a small gift.”

Gray returned to campus in 2018 for Reunion and enjoyed walking through the newer buildings and recalling his own academic experiences.

“Grinnell provided an excellent education for which I’m still grateful,” he says. “I want to see the College continue to make those type of opportunities to a student body that looks like America.”

— by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

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