Joe Gray grew up knowing the meaning of hard work and became the first in his family to go to college, further distinguishing himself by graduating first in his class from Hastings College of the Law.
Family, friends and colleagues described him as a quiet, sensitive man with extraordinary intellect who devoted his career to civil law, first as an attorney, then as a Sacramento Superior Court judge.
Gray died Oct. 16 at age 81. He was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, a progressive disease, about three years ago, said Lynn Gray, his wife of 59 years,
Joe Gray spent 22 years with the law firm of Wilke, Fleury, Hoffelt and Gray, where he was a senior partner. Longtime friend and attorney Bill Gould said much of Gray’s private practice involved medical malpractice cases.
“He was a defense attorney who represented a lot of doctors in the state,” Gould said.
Gray left the firm in 1983 to become the regional solicitor for Union Pacific, then pursued corporate law with the firm of Greve, Clifford, Diepenbrock and Paras, before being appointed to the Sacramento Superior Court in 1989.
Gray spent 10 of his 14 years on the court as a civil law and motions judge. It was an intellectually demanding job, said Rich Thurn, Gray’s longtime friend and attorney, explaining that a law and motions judge hears pleadings from both sides in the case, then renders a decision.
Fred Morrison and Ronald Robie, who later became associate justices with California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, each served with Gray on the Superior Court.
Morrison said he was a law professor when he met Gray, who was serving on the State Bar of California’s Board of Governors.
“He impressed me with his soft-spoken reasonableness,” Morrison said.
When he served with Gray as a law and motions judge, he recalled that the two men would often pop into each other’s offices to discuss the facts of a case.
In his role as a justice on the appellate court, Morrison said, “I can’t remember a case where we reversed Judge Gray.”
Robie, who also served with Gray as a law and motions judge, said his colleague had great judicial demeanor.
“He was very sensitive. He listened, he was very deliberate, and he took the time to get it right,” Robie said. “He made people feel like they got a good hearing.”
Gray is credited with automating Sacramento’s small claims court, making it possible for people to file claims online in the early 1990s, long before most courts went to paperless operations.
People filing small claims don’t have lawyers, Robie said, and Gray pushed to make computers available at the courthouse to people filing claims. If they had to leave and come back another day with more information, the computer would save their file so they could return and add to it.
“He fought hard to get the bureaucracy of the court to accept this. … He fought like Don Quixote against the windmills,” Robie said. “This was a real accomplishment of his.”
He was very sensitive. He listened, he was very deliberate, and he took the time to get it right. He made people feel like they got a good hearing.
Joe S. Gray was born July 21, 1935, in Tennessee to Sidney D. and Maggie Leona Gray. His family was “very poor, dirt poor,” said Lynn Gray. Her husband was the only boy among the four children and the apple of his sisters’ eyes, she said.
In a eulogy, Gray’s eldest son, Robert, described his father as a strong-willed man who came from humble origins.
“His people were the Scots Irish of the hills of Tennessee. Pioneer stock,” Robert Gray wrote. “I have seen a photo of him as a small boy standing in a field with his own small cotton sack, taking a break from cotton picking.”
The family moved to California when Joe Gray was 4 years old. They picked cotton and fruit, and his father eventually found work as an electrician, Lynn Gray said.
Bill Wilson said he met Gray when both were 14 and entering McClatchy High School. Both became attorneys and remained friends throughout the years.
Wilson recalled that Gray was quite the linguist. “He took to learning languages like a fish to water,” Wilson said.
Although he wasn’t an athlete in high school, Gray became an avid sailor, golfer and bicyclist as an adult. Wilson recalled that Gray would play 18 holes of golf, walking the course carrying his bag, then hop on his bicycle and ride from Sacramento to Rio Vista and back.
Lynn Gray, who met her husband when both were students at UC Davis, said the family owned five sailboats over the years. She recalled that the entire family sailed together from the Bay Area to Southern California – “Joe, me, four kids and a cat. It was a wonderful time.”
Later, she and her husband bought a motor home and traveled throughout the western United States. On one trip, they traced the route of explorers Lewis and Clark in reverse.
Thurn said the two men often went to UC Berkeley football games and played dominoes together. He noted that they won a dominoes tournament at Sacramento’s Sutter Club and went on to compete in San Francisco.
Thurn recalled when Gray told him that he had been diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia and explained that it was a progressive disease.
“He soldiered right through it,” Thurn said. “He knew what was coming.”
In addition to his wife, Lynn, of Sacramento, Gray leaves a daughter, Katherine Hess of Davis; sons Robert and John, both of Oakland, and Jim of Austin, Texas; and three grandchildren.
A private family service was held. Donations in memory of Joe Gray may be sent to the Lewy Body Dementia Association, 912 Killian Hill Road S.W., Lilburn, GA 30047 or made online at https://www.lbda.org/.