New chemistry professor 'paying forward' his WBU experience

PLAINVIEW – Every day, Dr. Gary Gray comes into his office in the basement of the Moody Science Building, preparing for the day’s classes or grading homework. It’s already routine, but even this far into the semester, the experience is somewhat surreal.

Gray is filling the shoes – and, quite literally, the office – of his mentor as the new professor of chemistry at Wayland Baptist University. He replaced Dr. Harold Temple, who served on the science faculty at Wayland for more than 30 years and retired in June.

To his students, he is the new guy on the block. Few know the history behind the man and his mentor and the story behind what drove a successful academician and administrator back to the classroom and back to his alma mater.

Gray first came to Wayland in 1976, fresh out of a stint in the Army with a new wife and, admittedly, a bad attitude. He’d started his college career at Baylor University in 1971 just before getting drafted into the Army. Not able to afford to return to Baylor, the Grays considered Wayland because of a family connection – both his parents had attended WBU – and because the financial aid package was enough to allow both Gray and his wife Esther to go to school.

“I came in as a bitter young man,” he recalled. “I felt cheated out of those years out of school, and I wasn’t having a good walk in my faith.”

Entering as a pre-medicine major, Gray took his first chemistry class with Temple and developed a passion for the field. Not only did he glean from Temple the knowledge and technique of a skilled chemist, but he also found an example of a godly man who encouraged students in their academic and spiritual pursuits.

“You can’t help but like Dr. Temple,” he noted. “Quality mattered to him, and he held us to a high standard. He became a surrogate father, in a sense, to me. Coming into an academic community with men like Dr. Temple, Dr. (J. Hoyt) Bowers and Dr. (Harold) Reese was so totally different from what I’d been exposed to for four years.”

“I used these guys as a model for what it means to be a Christian doing science.”

While he was learning quantum mechanics and doing lab experiments, Gray was picking up valuable lessons from Temple on another level as well. The future held many options, but after his graduation in May 1979, Gray opted to enter the doctoral program at Texas Tech in chemistry. After completing the degree, he did protein chemistry research at the Tech Health Sciences Center for the National Institute of Health for three years.

From there, Gray went to Penn State as a faculty member, doing full-time cancer research. But the routine of constant reading and lonely lab work “felt like solitary confinement” and was not satisfying work. It was at that point Gray said he had his “come to Jesus meeting and finally stopped to ask God what He wanted me to do,” he said.

“When my plans and goals hadn’t worked out, I felt like I had to fall back on God,” Gray said, adding that he applied to the foreign mission board thinking missions was his calling.

Someone on the board suggested he consider teaching and forwarded his application to several Christian universities. In 1989, he started a teaching job at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, where he worked his way through the faculty ranks and eventually to the role of Dean of Science and Math in 2001. A high point of his tenure was helping start an academic program on faith and science.

Soon, Gray found himself at another career crossroads. He wasn’t interested in moving up to the provost’s role, and he felt called back to the classroom. When he started looking at openings, he didn’t really consider Wayland, noting “the climate is not really my cup of tea.” He had even passed the chemistry job opening announcement on to a few alumni who fit the bill.

“The more I thought about it and read the description, I realized that was me,” he said. “Leaving was a painful thing, though. I took a huge salary hit and walked away from tenure, but the Lord worked it out so well we knew it was a good thing.”

Ironically, the Grays had decided to sell their house and buy another, and the house was already on the market before they knew about the opening at Wayland. It sold quickly, and when Gray was able to predict his salary within $100, the couple took those as signs that God was moving them to Plainview.

Something else tugged at Gray.

“The thought of coming back to fill Dr. Temple’s shoes appealed to me greatly,” he said. “To see the commitment of the institution to the field of chemistry, to see how far Wayland had come since I’d been here was all encouraging. I saw a faculty who was committed to dragging students over the bar, not lowering the bar.”

Gray looks back over his own WBU experience when contemplating the importance of his new role, and admits a bit of divine intervention.

“The thought of coming back and giving back what I was given was very appealing to me,” Gray said thoughtfully. “The Lord made it so clear that I was called to come that I knew we had to come.”