Herb Gray will be remembered as the slightly stooped figure in a suit just a little too large for his body, who met opposition questions in the House of Commons with meandering responses that were deftly crafted to say nothing at all.
It was an oratorical skill that earned him the nickname The Gray Fog.
The former Liberal MP and deputy prime minister, who held 11 ministerial positions under multiple prime ministers and led his party on an interim basis for the better part of 1990, died in hospital Monday, one month shy of his 83rd birthday.
Mr. Gray, Canada’s first Jewish federal cabinet minister, was elected in 1962 when John Diefenbaker was in power and retired in 2002 from the government of Jean Chrétien. He was highly intelligent, a committed activist for social justice, a dedicated servant for his riding in Windsor, Ont., and a person of warm wit and humour who was undefeated through 13 consecutive elections.
Former prime minister Paul Martin, who also called Windsor home, said he met Mr. Gray when his father, Paul Martin Sr., was the Liberal MP for another riding in the blue-collar, car-making city.
Mr. Martin said in an interview Tuesday that Mr. Gray had a great belief in the power of government to do good.
“I think that’s what shone through in virtually every conversation,” Mr. Martin said. “When you couple that with a terrific sense of humour and somebody who, in later years, obviously had the wisdom of enormous experience, it was virtually impossible to sit down with Herb and not have it come through as a real lesson in governance.”
Sharon Sholzberg-Gray was alerted to the charms of her future husband when she was a 19-year-old university student.
She had worked on the 1962 election campaign of John Turner, the future prime minister who was then vying for a federal seat in Montreal. After the vote, Mr. Turner mentioned that there was a nice 31-year-old bachelor who had won a seat in Windsor and he thought they would make a good pair. Ms. Sholzberg-Gray pointed out the disparity between her age and that of her prospective suitor and told Mr. Turner he was “crazy.”
But, two years later, Mr. Turner tried again, this time introducing them at a Liberal convention in Ottawa. They had their first date six weeks later and were married in 1967.
“What made him special was his brilliance and, believe it or not – everyone’s going to really laugh – his wit and charisma,” said Ms. Sholzberg-Gray, a lawyer who is one of the country’s leading health-care experts. “He was always underestimated. He was a brilliant orator. He gave a political speech just as good as the best of them.”
Although he was known for deflecting answers in Question Period, she said, he did much more than that.
Mr. Gray would provide direct responses to the opposition when he thought answering was appropriate, Mr. Martin said, and to the other questions, “He would occasionally have a couple of extra sentences. What it meant was there were decent debates, where people took each other seriously, and there were none of the personal attacks, none of the meanness that you see today.”
Mr. Gray was born in Windsor in 1931. His parents, Harry and Fanny Gray, were immigrants from Belarus who started a yard-goods store that became one of the city’s best known family-owned department stores.
He obtained a law degree and decided to enter public life. For years after he first won his seat – in the riding that later became Windsor West – his mother ran his constituency office from their home on one of the city’s main drags.
“He believed very strongly that an industrial city like Windsor had to have a future,” Mr. Martin said. “He also believed very much in the power of government. I think if you were to say, ‘Why did he run?’ [It is] because he believed in the power of government to do good.”
Dwight Duncan, the former Ontario finance minister, was also a Windsor boy. When he was 13 years old, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau arrived in town as part of the 1972 election campaign tour. Mr. Duncan skipped school to attend the Liberal rally at a local shopping mall and positioned himself at the front of the crowd, hoping to get an autograph.
Mr. Trudeau passed by without noticing the boy holding out his pen and paper. But “Herb Gray was right behind him,” Mr. Duncan said. “And he said ‘Quick, write your name and your address and your phone number on that piece of paper and I will get you an autograph.’ So I did.”