Remembering Norma Gray, wife, mother, writer, musician, volunteer, devoted Catholic and world traveler

Norma Jeanne Gray / March 21, 1928 – July 22, 2018

A wife, mother, writer, musician, volunteer, devoted Catholic and world traveler, Norma Jeanne Gray died in her Berkeley home July 22 after developing pulmonary disease. She was 90, and had marked her birthday with a grand celebration with family and friends just a few months before.

Norma was born March 21, 1928, in Waterloo, Iowa, to Claude and Grace O’Connell, the eldest of four children (her brother, Noel, of Discovery Bay, survives her). In 1936, her family migrated to Berkeley. She attended public schools and was a gifted student, graduating from Berkeley High at 16 in 1944.

She attended UC Berkeley for two years before her marriage, focused on music and drama. She earned an AA degree and worked as a courier for Lawrence National Laboratory.

She was an active member and leader in St. Joseph Church in Berkeley from 1936 to 2016, directing its choir for several decades. In the choir in 1945, she met her husband, John A. Gray, a founder of Berkeley’s Graysix Co., who pre-deceased her in 2006. They were married in 1947 and had 10 children: Claudia, John, Margaret, Marianne, Jeanne, Michael, Lawrence, Paul (dec. 2014), Karel and Catherine (dec. 2004). She had 18 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and four step-great-grandchildren.

Norma (left) and her sister JoAnn singing with a band at the Embarcadero YMCA in San Francisco in 1945. Photo: Courtesy family

Norma and John lived in their Sacramento Street home from 1954 until their deaths. Their home was always full of music, friends and acquaintances from near and far.

Even as she ran a busy household, Norma was never just a housewife. She loved writing, and took on a role as a columnist and writer for the Oakland diocese’s Catholic Voice newspaper for many years. She followed politics and current events closely, and enjoyed a good debate on almost any subject, writing letters to newspapers and newsmakers, eloquently expressing approval or disdain.

She volunteered innumerable hours to church and school activities: parish council, pre-marriage instruction, parent organizations. She helped found a diocesan tuition-assistance program for Catholic school students and was Bay Area coordinator of handcraft sales for the international relief and development agency Concern America. Outside of the church, she helped found Berkeley’s historical society and led a Berkeley High alumnae group, the Red and Golden Girls.

She read voraciously, even after her eyesight began to fail. Her tastes ranged from politics and spirituality to mystery novels and crossword puzzles.

Norma’s greatest love, though, was music. She had a splendid alto voice and played the violin and piano. During WWII, she and her sister Joann sang for the USO. She was in constant demand as a soloist at weddings and funerals. She hosted musicales in her home and loved opera and classical music.

She and her husband loved to travel, taking annual vacations at Lake Tahoe, making cross-country trips by car to visit friends and family, and venturing to Europe, Asia and Russia and the Middle East.

One of Norma’s maxims was “It’s all about connections,” and she created and maintained lifelong relationships with people around the world.

A memorial mass is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 5, at 1:30 p.m. at St. Augustine Church in Oakland. St. Joseph Funeral Center in San Pablo is handling arrangements; burial will be private.

Memorial donations can be made in her name to the retirement fund for the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and The Belles of Saint Mary’s Endowed Scholarship Fund.