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John Gray

Courtesy of family

John Anthony Morgan Gray: Journalist. Husband. Father. Friend. Born April 28, 1937, in Toronto; died Sept. 23, 2020, in Toronto, of complications from Parkinson’s disease; aged 83.

There were three distinct John Grays.

The first was the journalist who wrote thousands of articles for The Globe and Mail over more than 20 years – as a Parliamentary reporter in Ottawa, then as a foreign correspondent based in London and Moscow.

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It was the perfect role: John looked like he’d been sent from central casting to play the part of a handsome foreign correspondent – and he won three National Newspaper Awards while he was at it. He was an elegant writer who could effortlessly capture the essence of a story. He knew what he wanted to say and almost never needed more than a gentle cursor waved over his work.

John Gray's press pass while he covered President Richard Nixon for the Montreal Star.

Courtesy of family

The second John was full of fun, a kibitzer who enjoyed pranking his friends and family. More than once, he phoned a pal in government or the media and posed as a powerful figure to scare the bejesus out of them.

His kids and grandkids say they were never safe from John’s horse bites, a thumb and fingers firmly curled around unwary knees. And his three children remember early on how he would scratch noisily on the door of the outhouse pretending to be a bear (although his laughter usually gave him away). Alas, toilet humour could reduce him to tears.

All of which is part and parcel of the third John, the family man.

He met Elizabeth Binks, another only child, born two days before him, at the University of Toronto student newspaper. They were together for the next 60 years. Elizabeth Gray worked alongside him all over the world, filing stories and documentaries for CBC Radio. He called her Binks until he died.

They found a balance between journalism and family life: Colin and Rachel were born in London, Josh followed when the family relocated to Montreal, where John worked at the Montreal Gazette and Montreal Star. The kids’ growing-up years were spent in Ottawa, when John was at the Ottawa Citizen, then at the Ottawa Journal and when it folded, at The Globe and Mail.

All three had left home by the time their parents went overseas, where John dodged bullets in Northern Ireland, reported from Arab Jerusalem during the Gulf War and witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union.

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They remember their father as someone who taught them to pull their weight without waiting to be asked. And as a man who valued their company and made a point of taking them aside to say so. He not only loved his children, he liked them.

A touchstone for the Grays was the summer house in the Kawarthas of Ontario, a second home to John since childhood, a place where friends and family would hang out on the dock by day, then spend evenings eating, talking and drinking red wine.

Back at their Annex home in Toronto, there was an annual joint birthday party for Elizabeth and John and a holiday gathering in December. Both events would draw together a huge group of friends-for-life.

John retired in the late 1990s, but he kept writing: Magazine articles mostly and a biography, in 2003, Paul Martin: The Power of Ambition.

He accepted his Parkinson’s diagnosis several years ago with the grace that marked his life. Rachel said the cruel disease “diminished him, but it didn’t change him fundamentally. He was playful and thoughtful, charming – himself.”

Sarah Murdoch is John’s friend and colleague.

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To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide

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