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A Tribute to Frank McCray, Jr.

Judy McCray (left) and Frank McCray, Jr. (right) with Frank's mentor and friend, Chris Christensen
"Coming of Age at UMD," an essay by Frank McCray

Frank McCray, Jr., who passed away early in 2011, grew up in the rural hometown of Chiefland, Fla.

He possessed a profound love of reading. As a boy, the local librarian learned of Frank’s love of reading and arranged for him to get his hands on as many books as possible. Normally getting books to a child is a simple task, but in the deeply segregated American South of the 1950s and 1960s, African-American children like Frank were not allowed in a then, all-White library. To nurture Frank’s love of reading, the librarian would meet Frank after hours at the back of the library and exchange with him all the books the frail, but bright 9-year-old could carry.

As years passed, Frank never lost his passion. He was often caught hiding from chores by reading novels in the cool shade underneath the house. Most weekends, you could find him walking barefoot in the Florida sun from house to house, where he would read the newspaper to elderly neighbors who’s vision was failing them, or more often to the many able-bodied adults who had never been taught to read.

After being raised in this environment that was saturated with heat and humidity, and seemingly devoid of literature and enlightenment, Frank set himself on a place that was far away from oranges, swamps and all the things he had learned to associate with his upbringing. Frank chose UMD, fully understanding there would be cold and snow, and that it would be a difficult transition. What he had no idea of was the profound changes, challenges and ultimately triumphs that awaited him. Frank made his journey to Duluth with little more than the clothes on his back, the money in his pocket, and the determination of someone who read every book he was told he couldn’t or shouldn’t read.

Frank couldn’t afford the bus, so every day he would walk from his job in downtown Duluth vacuuming floors and cleaning offices to his classes on the UMD campus. Frank rationed what little income he had for cans of tuna, noodles, and fuel to heat his bedroom. When the crisp Duluth fall would turn to the bitter cold of winter, he would often describe the feeling of “blood freezing in my legs.”

McCray (right) with John Brostrom in the late 1960s. Brostrom is now the UMD Interim Director of Auxilliary Services.
McCray (right), daughter Elizabeth is in the middle, and an exchange student, Victor Kraku from Liberia is on the left. Frank and Elizabeth are wearing clothes Victor had given to them.
Frank McCray, his son, Christopher, wife, Judy and daughter, Elizabeth.

UMD Friends
One day a professor of Frank’s, Dr. Robert Owens, or Bob as he became to Frank, saw Frank walking and gave him a ride to campus. This was the first of countless rides, and more importantly relationships that would define Frank’s experience at UMD. Owens became a fixture in Frank’s life. Owens’ insights to literature and learning, as well as his unyielding patience and kindness helped Frank not only during his days at UMD, but throughout his life. Over the years, Frank’s relationship with Owens grew to include Owens’ wife, Mary Jane and their three children, Christopher, Sarah Tenby and Jonathan.

Another fixture in Frank’s life was Dr. Chris Christensen. Introduced by a classmate, Christensen’s son Anders, Christensen would become honorary grandfather to Frank’s children. Christensen’s wife, Dory, and their six children took Frank into their hearts and into their home as they did many exchange students and disadvantaged youth. Christensen was known not only for his medical expertise, but most importantly for always being there for anyone who needed him, regardless of whether they had the means to pay for his services. He had dedicated his life to the Hippocratic Oath and became a mentor to Frank. His patience and kindness much like Bob’s, affected Frank in a profound way. His wisdom would give Frank pause in difficult situations, and long before there was a catch phrase, Frank would ask himself; “what would ‘Grandpa C’ do?” Grandpa C, as Chris became known to Frank, Frank’s wife Judy, and their two children, was family in every meaningful sense.

Frank’s academic record was stellar. His contributions as a resident advisor gained him life-long friends. He learned what Minnesotans meant by “the cabin” and “the lake” on weekend visits with his classmates. Academic and student life prepared him well for life after graduation. He received his B.A.(’67) and M.A.(’71) in English and after graduation, he worked for Duluth Mayor Ben Boo while taking classes for his Ph.D.

His next career move was teaching in two public schools in Minnesota; it was at this time he was able to share his love of learning and became a life-long educator. After UMD, Frank’s next path was to teach in Africa. He started by selling his home and all of his possessions. He learned to speak Swahili and moved to Uganda, Africa, to become a school teacher in a small village near Entebbe. Two years passed before political unrest and the policies of dictator Idi Amin upset the country. Late one night, Frank heard a knock on his door. A friend told him to grab his things and get out of the country. At the airport, Frank waited for the first plane. His name was called over the loud speaker, and he was taken away. To his relief, it wasn’t the police who wanted to see him; it was his students who had come to say goodbye. But more terror was ahead. Frank didn’t have the American dollars for the ticket, and Ugandan money was worthless. Eventually, the airline staff put him on the plane, making him promise to pay when he landed. Frank often told the story of his arrival in the States. Safe in New York City, he was shopping in a grocery store when he saw dozens of holiday hams for sale. He cried. The disparity between the two countries was profound. He said it seemed as if the hams in that one store could feed all of the people in Uganda.

Back in Minnesota, Frank taught Human Relations classes part-time at Anoka-Ramsey and Normandale Colleges in addition to his Human Relations Consultant position in Roseville. One summer, while waiting for his fall assignment in the Roseville Schools, Frank was approached to be an insurance agent. He reluctantly accepted this new position to better provide for his family, but he instantly enjoyed it.

In this new position, Frank genuinely cared about all of his clients, listened to and understood their needs, and was able to continue to be an educator. He enjoyed teaching clients how to protect their families and assets from disaster and all the trials life can bring.

Frank met his wife, Judy, through one of his neighbors. This neighbor happened to be Judy’s cousin, who had repeatedly set up meetings between them to no avail. When they found out they each had season tickets to the symphony, in the same section, the relationship took off. They married in 1975. Their daughter, Elizabeth, arrived in 1976 and their son, Christopher, six years later.

Frank’s motto was to treat people with genuineness, empathy and regard. This motto of generosity extended to the kitchen. While Frank didn’t eat desserts himself, he made banana cream pies and fresh raspberry pies to give to clients, friends, and neighbors. Each year, he made over 100 jars of strawberry jam, all of which he give away. He was known for his friendship bread, which was equally distributed. For all of his culinary delights, Frank was most famous for his ribs. Known throughout the Twin Cities, southeastern Minnesota and Phoenix, everyone knew when Frank had lit the grill and the ribs “were on”.

Frank’s connection to generosity continues. His wife, Judy, and children, Elizabeth and Christopher, honored Frank’s wishes and established the Frank McCray Jr. Achievement Scholarship. Frank often gave credit for his success to his background at UMD. The family expects to award the first scholarship in spring 2012.

Coming of Age at UMD

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An essay by Frank McCray in UMD Comes of Age: the First 100 Years (1996)

I have many vivid memories of UMD, but even those that are less clear still afford delight and shed light on my coming of age at UMD. A native Floridian, I remember the spectacle of people hurrying to Lake Superior to net thousands of little fish. I also remember my first winter, the requisite snipe hunt along the North Shore, and friends who routinely left for the weekends to go to “the lake” or “the cabin.” I often wondered where “the lake” and “the cabin” were. Names like Long Lake, Round Lake, Big Lake, and Big Fork inspired little confidence after the first snipe hunt, but these forays with friends from UMD formed the beginning of lifelong friendships that still sustain me.

Some of our friendships have become extended family. Kenner, Donnan, Odin, and Anders Christensen — students at UMD — became “my brothers” and their parents, Chris and Dory Christensen, opened their home to me. I remember trying to explain to our young daughter how grandma and grandpa Christensen became her grandparents, when, out of nowhere, she wanted to know why they were Danish-Americans and we were African-Americans. After a circuitous explanation, which ended near Hinckley, she said “That’s nice.” Years later, lightning struck with our son, who wanted to know if Bob and Mary Jane Owens were on my side of the family or his mother’s. Before I could explain that Bob Owens was my mentor at UMD and that his and Mary Jane’s enthusiasm for East Africa led to my teaching in Uganda, our then twelve-year-old daughter said knowingly, “It all started a long time ago at UMD. . . .”

The impact of a good, liberal arts education on my professional life has been as important as the friendships developed at UMD. As an undergraduate I learned many things that still hold me in good stead. Particulars are sometimes fuzzy, but historical and intellectual currents can still be recalled. What is more important than this is the positive attitude that suggests a balanced, well-rounded person continues to learn more and more about the world, acknowledging the past, enjoying the present, and embracing the challenges of the future. Additionally, this kind of liberal arts education is the natural right of every person.

I reluctantly recall those dead-end days in the seventies when “experts” believed that students should be taught English language and literature that were appropriate to their career interests. Plumbers, say, would not be required to read or write about great literature. I knew this would lead to intellectual slavery and resisted it then and now. UMD, like other institutions, will decentralize, downsize, and restructure again, but its next one hundred years should hold true to the notion that a broad, liberal arts education is the air that gives flight to the heaviest object.

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Written by Cheryl Reitan with contributions from Judy, Elizabeth, and Christopher McCray. 9/01/11

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