Ralph Gareth Gray, known to all as “Gary” passed away at age 88 on May 9, 2018, in Palo Alto. A longtime resident of Berkeley, Gary was a licensed and practicing civil and structural engineer and architect.
Gary was born in Stockton, California, on August 21, 1929, to Louise Noack Gray and Ralph Nichols Gray. Louise was an independent woman who divorced her husband, a sign painter, due to his drinking and temper, and struggled to support Gary and his younger sister Katherine through the Great Depression. She worked variously as a secretary, by creating window displays and ad copy for department stores, painting doll’s faces, and then during World War II as an electrician’s assistant on ships in the Port of Stockton.
Gary and Katherine loved music and art, and their mother encouraged their talents. Gary continued to draw, paint, and design holiday cards throughout his life. He attended the Weber School, followed by Stockton High School, where he enjoyed his Latin classes, played the trumpet in the orchestra, and did illustrations for the high school yearbook. During his school years, he worked at a variety of jobs, including one for the Civilian Air Warning System during World War II, spotting planes from atop a tall Stockton building. He graduated in 1946, then attended Stockton Junior College and the College of the Pacific. He then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering in 1953.
It was during his senior year at Cal that he traveled to Chicago with his best friend and future business partner, Ephraim Gordon Hirsch, for a convention of Chi Epsilon, the civil engineering honor society. While there, he and Eph went on a blind double date, arranged by Eph’s relatives through a South Side rabbi. Gary’s date was Alice Wirth (younger daughter of Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth and social worker Mary Bolton Wirth). According to Eph, it was love at first sight. Gary and Alice married less than two years later and had been married for nearly 54 years when Alice died in 2008.
Gary had participated in ROTC, the Army National Guard, and the Naval Reserve, but was drafted into the army in June of 1953, not long after his college graduation and toward the end of the Korean War. After basic training at Fort Ord, he was assigned to the Medical Corps at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco as a specialty orthopedic technician, carving and molding prosthetic limbs for wounded soldiers. He was also tapped for architectural drafting and engineering work on the facilities.
He married Alice in San Francisco on July 16, 1954, while still in the army. After discharge in May 1955, they traveled east so Gary could attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with funding from the GI Bill. While Alice worked at libraries at Harvard and MIT, Gary took both engineering and architectural courses, and worked on programming Whirlwind II, an early digital computer that took up several floors of a building. Gary’s job was to program the computer to model blast effects on buildings. He was able to use this work as a source of insight into the effects of earthquakes on buildings that would be helpful further on in his career.
After he received his M.S. in Civil Engineering in mid-1957, the couple returned to Berkeley, and in 1961, he and Alice moved into a small house in Berkeley, where they would raise two daughters, Mary Louise and Lizzy Kate.
Gary worked as an engineer for a variety of engineering and architectural firms both in Berkeley and San Francisco. He established his own firm in 1965 and in 1968, joined with his friend Eph, to form Hirsch & Gray, Structural Engineers. Over the subsequent decades of his career, Gary worked both independently and in the firm Overstreet, Rosenberg & Gray (later Rosenberg, Gray, & McGinnis). As an engineer, he sought out new, innovative ways to solve structural problems. Many of his projects received professional society and industry awards.
As an architect, he designed (and also engineered) elegant, modern houses at Sea Ranch and Willits, which emphasized panoramic views of nature and functioned visually as graceful extensions of their environments. He also designed business buildings such as the Oak Barrel Winery, and numerous additions and modifications to old and historic buildings, in which he challenged himself to preserve their venerable character. He taught courses in structural design and building technology as a lecturer at Stanford and UC Berkeley, and later taught a seminar on the structural impact of insects and decay in wood structures at UC Berkeley.
In the second half of his career, he served numerous times as an expert witness, giving testimony in court in situations in which developers had subverted safety standards and built shoddy homes. He also served on committees revising building codes for increased earthquake safety. Earthquake and fire safety were always paramount in his work, and he was known to recommend the shutting down of businesses and schools if he deemed them unsafe. He was also very generous with his expertise, and could often be found on the phone, giving free information and advice to people who had found his name in the phone book. When asked why he just spent two or three hours giving away what most people charged money for, he would say, “They couldn’t have afforded my rates!” After the disastrous Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, he volunteered his time helping to determine the safety of damaged homes in the Marina district of San Francisco.
Throughout his life, Gary enjoyed listening to old and new jazz, spending time in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and playing with the various cats who came through his life: Sam, Furtooth, Furburger, Fletcher, Charley, and Pepper. He and Alice made one trip to Europe, where they had a splendid time investigating the structural details of ancient cathedrals, and Gary was able to visit works designed by his hero, 15th-century architect and engineer, Filippo Brunelleschi.
Always a hard worker, Gary retired late in life. He and Alice then enjoyed their golden years together, doing the NYT crossword puzzle at lunch and reading books aloud to each other in the evenings –all of Proust, all of Shakespeare, the Bible, the Koran, and many others. After Alice Wirth Gray’s death on March 16, 2008, Gary grieved, but managed to get by alone in the house they once shared. He made a website for his wife’s poetry and wrote a memoir of his own, focusing on design issues. He continued to enjoy visits with his many wonderful neighbors on his daily walks with his beloved cat, Charley. In 2016, suffering from dementia, he moved to Palo Alto to be closer to his daughters and then moved to a nursing home for the final year of his life.
Gary is survived by his daughter Mary Louise Gray Baker (and husband Wendell Baker), his daughter Lizzy Kate Gray (and husband G. William Domhoff), and his two grandchildren, Clara Elizabeth Baker and Raymond Gareth Baker. He is also survived by his sister, Katherine Gray-Hawes, niece Gabriella Fernandez-Cozano, and nephews Louis Wirth Marvick, Andrew Bolton Marvick, Carlos Fernandez-Gray, Miguel Fernandez, and Andrés Fernandez, as well as many grand-nieces and grand-nephews.
A memorial gathering in celebration of Gary’s life was held in Berkeley on August 25, 2018. Professionally, Gary will be remembered as a creative designer who strove for beauty—but with safety as the bottom line. Personally, we will remember him as a man utterly devoted to his wife; a man who was consistently kind, always ready to laugh, and always delighted by cats and children.