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Legacy of Leadership: Honoring Lois Howard Gray, a Pioneer in Business, Arts, and Community Service


September 10, 1920 to March 19, 2012 


Lois Howard Gray, one of Kentucky’s first and most successful female entrepreneurs, died March 19, 2012, at the age of 91. She was the co-founder with her late husband, James N. Gray, of one of the country’s highly regarded construction companies, Gray Construction, presently known as Gray. 

Lois was born in Glasgow, KY, to Dr. C.C. and Mrs. Julia Franklin Howard on September 10, 1920. Dr. Howard was a renowned Kentucky physician who founded the state’s tuberculosis hospital system and the Rural Kentucky medical Scholarship Fund. Julia Franklin Howard was a school teacher before her marriage. Lois was one of four Howard daughters and a descendant of early pioneer families in Barren County. 


From a very young age, Lois showed great drive, determination, and leadership. Educated at the Ward-Belmont College in Nashville, TN, Lois earned a Bachelor of Arts in History and English from Transylvania University. She continued her post-graduation studies in fine arts at the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University before earning a Master of Arts in Art Education from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. 


During World War II, she enlisted in the Navy to serve as a WAVES officer (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), a newly organized branch just for women. In this role, she was stationed at the naval command center in Washington, D.C., where she drafted and mapped out positions of U.S. ships in the Atlantic for the Navy, meeting with admirals and other top-ranking naval officers regularly. She served as a lieutenant (j.g.) in WAVES from 1943 to 1946. 


In 1947, Lois married James Norris Gray, a young and enthusiastic entrepreneur from Marrowbone, KY. They settled in Glasgow, KY, and had two daughters and four sons: Julia Gray Navolio; Howard Gray; Jim Gray; Franklin Gray; Lisa Gray McKeachie; and Stephen Gray. 

In the 1950s, Lois started an interiors business in her home, which first focused on draperies but soon expanded into a home interiors business. In 1960, Lois and James Norris Gray founded the James N. Gray Construction Company based in Glasgow. The company grew quickly in its early years, but the untimely death of James Norris Gray in 1972 left Lois without her husband and the company without its leader. Without hesitation, Lois and her sons took the business over and grew it to become one of the top design-build contractors in the nation.  


As company chairman, Lois applied her considerable social skills to a marketing campaign in the ‘80s that found her presiding as hostess for two decades over Gray-sponsored Kentucky Derby events that brought dozens of national and foreign business leaders to the state, many of whom later invested in Gray-built plants, either in Kentucky or elsewhere across the U.S. Although she has deep roots in the Glasgow area, she blessed her sons’ initiative to move the company headquarters to Lexington to expand Gray’s customer base.


When building the Lexington office, the interior design company worked closely with Lois Gray. She wanted bright, bold colors and modern furniture throughout the building’s many gathering places. Lois’s discerning taste in interior design became a defining element, subsequently influencing and preserving the aesthetic across all Gray office locations. 

Lois remained active in professional associations throughout her career and was a recognized business leader on both a local and national level. The National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) named Lois, a co-founder of the Kentucky Chapter, “National Woman Business Owner of the Year” in 2002. In 2007, she was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Kentucky Commission on Women. She was named as one of The Lane Report’s “Top Women in Business” in 1993 and 1994. Other professional memberships included Executive Women International; the International Women’s Forum; the Committee of 200, an invitation-only international organization of women entrepreneurs and corporate leaders; the American Society of Interior Design; the University of Kentucky Business Partnership Foundation Board of Directors; the Glasgow-Barren County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors; the Kentucky Women’s Leadership Network Board of Directors; and Director of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Louisville Branch. 


Outside her long and successful business career, Lois was a tireless community advocate who dedicated countless hours and monetary gifts, primarily to education and arts organizations. She served on the boards of Transylvania University, Lindsey Wilson College, Chamber of Commerce, Kentucky Council on Higher Education, Kentucky Educational Foundation, The Kentucky Independent College Foundation, Louisville Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and the state’s Governor’s Scholars Program. She was a member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. She committed her own time and recruited others to volunteer for Junior Achievement programs in both Glasgow and Lexington and was inducted into the organization’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1997. Also, that year, she was presented with the Morrison Medallion, one of Transylvania University’s highest honors. In 1998, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Kentucky College of Engineering and, in 2000, she received the Presidential Medallion by Murray State University.  


Lois’s passion for the arts was obvious to anyone who knew her. She was a founding member of the Horse Cave Theatre, served as state chairperson for the Kentucky Center for the Arts grand opening in 1983, and was on the endowment board of Appalshop, a non-profit arts education center in Appalachia, from 1989 to 1991. She was also a member of the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Oral History Commission.  


Lois herself was an accomplished watercolor artist whose favorite subjects were the Barren County, KY, countryside and coastal Maine. She studied watercolor with Ivan Wilson, a watercolorist and art instructor at Western Kentucky University. In 2001, Vanderbilt University named a room in the art building in her honor. Her watercolor Carnival was used for the 2004 Art in Bloom fundraiser benefiting the University of Kentucky Art Museum. In November 2008, Lois’s work was exhibited at the Ashland Community & Technical College as part of “First Friday” art activities.  

Lois Howard Gray, the matriarch of Gray, peacefully passed away on March 19, 2012, after battling complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Her final resting place is the Glasgow Municipal Cemetery in Glasgow, KY. 


Since her passing, Lois Gray has received many prestigious awards. In 2013, she was honored with the Kentucky Women Remembered award by the Kentucky Commission on Women, an organization she founded. In 2023, Lois was inducted into the Kentucky Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, a testament to her enduring entrepreneurial legacy. Jim Gray, her son and non-executive chairman of the board, graciously accepted this esteemed honor on her behalf. This year, in 2024, we proudly announce her impending induction into the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) Hall of Fame, an event that Gray is privileged to sponsor. 


Lois’s indomitable spirit and enduring legacy continues to resonate within her family and our company. Her profound love for art, commitment to building meaningful relationships, and passion for community service have left an indelible mark. Her impact on women’s entrepreneurship and dedication to fostering enduring skills and opportunities will be celebrated for generations to come. 

"Our mom would be delighted to be in the company of such Kentucky leaders. Being modest about it, as was her way, she would give full credit of such an award to the many people at Gray who have contributed to our success over these many years."
Stephen Gray, President & Chief Executive Officer, Gray, Inc.

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