In Memory of Steven Gray, M.D., by Ingo R. Titze

On September 29, 2002, a peaceful Sunday morning, our dear friend and colleague Steven Gray passed away. He had fought a long battle with Wegener's granulomatosis, with later complications resulting in bladder cancer and finally, pneumonia. His incredible courage and cheerfulness have made this man a hero for many of us.

I would like to paint five portraits of Steven Gray. These are portraits that are well imprinted in the minds of hundreds of physicians and researchers around the world: Steve Gray, the pioneer and explorer; the master, mentor and teacher; the critic; the storyteller, and finally, the peacemaker.

Steve Gray The Pioneer and Explorer. When I first met Steve at the University of Iowa, he was in residency. I noticed at once that he was an unusual resident. Not only did he make his medical rounds, giving loving care to his patients, but he would make a second set of daily rounds to various research laboratories. He would appear again and again in certain laboratories, meeting researchers, introducing himself, learning what was going on. He showed a compulsory need to understand the underlying causes of the diseases he was treating. During his residency, he wrote a thesis to obtain a Master of Science degree. Some would have said that getting an M.S. after an M.D. is regression. For Steve it was progression because he wasn't interested in degrees and titles; he wanted the tools for discovery and doing science well. He did it in the most expeditious way.

In the early part of his career, he studied the human airway, particularly as it relates to pediatric otolaryngology. (Prior to his death, he served as president of the American Society of Pediatric Otolaryngology.) In the middle of his career, when he had to give up his own surgery because of illness, he started to investigate cellular and molecular approaches to wound healing, to finding cures for various voice disorders. His focus became the voices of teachers, performers, public speakers, and of course children. In these molecular and cellular approaches he was the unquestioned leader among his colleagues.

Toward the end of his career, his dream was to find the ten or twenty genes in the human body that would explain how voices differ, and why some people get into vocal problems and others don't. Steve made great advances towards fulfilling that dream, and I hope that those of us who continue in his legacy will help him complete it. Steve loved the rush that came from knowing something that, at least in a moment's time, nobody else in the world knew--that discovery that came fresh out of his lab or originated in his mind when he synthesized multiple observations.

Steve Gray The Mentor and Teacher. Steve helped numerous young scientists get started with their first papers or their first grant publications. Specifically, he helped them when they got poor critiques. He showed them how to live with the hurt and try again. The smiles on these young researchers' faces was his reward. He followed the principle of discipleship. Steve believed that if you take a lot of time to teach one or two persons well, they will teach one or two more, who will teach one or two more; pretty soon you will have an army of people engaged in a lab without walls. Steve gave away his ideas freely. Propriety of information was never a concern. He gave away his slides; he gave away his talks; he gave away his data sheets. They were freely distributed, because he always felt that what came back to him was much greater than what he gave. To Steve Gray, giving was living; to withhold was to perish.

Steve took an enormous amount of time to help young people. A personal story-- Steve and Janice once invited my family to do a little boating with them on Utah Lake. Being Iowans, we didn't know much about water sports; so we were the real dummies when it came to water skiing. We either couldn't get up or fell immediately. Steve would go around and around with the boat and say, “Give it another shot, give it another shot.” And, when that didn't work, he finally he just jumped into the water and got next to my son to see what he could do to get him up. He would have spent the entire evening to experience a success for my son, but the sunset pulled the plug.

Steve Gray The Critic. I sat with Steve in many meetings listening to colleagues give talks. As we all do in science, we of course try to pinpoint a flaw. Whenever we saw a flaw, I would always look over to Steve to see if he had already noticed it. He would smile--then I would know that his hand would go up the second the talk was over. For many in the professional arena it would have been an opportunity to hammer the person—or at least to show off some personal research prowess—but that was not Steven's style. He would phrase a question in such a way that the person felt like he had asked it himself, thinking, “Of course, I knew this all along.” Immediately afterwards this young man or woman would come to get more criticism from Steve.

In contrast, Steve had a healthy disrespect for people in high places and people with pretense. Sometimes in the evenings in a hotel room we would sit up between the hours of ten and twelve to sort out what was genuine in people and what wasn't. Steve had quite a few digs, threw a few punches, but he never confronted anyone because he was never in competition with anyone. For him it was all just about self-improvement, from year to year. It reminded me of a statement I read in an airline magazine, “There is no virtue in being better than someone else. There is virtue only in being better than your former self.“ And so it was with Steve.

Steve Gray The Storyteller. Oh how he loved to tell jokes! There was rarely a time in a professional meeting that he didn't begin his talk with a joke. I wish I had written all these jokes down. Some of them were a bit corny, of course, but he told them to settle himself down, to laugh at himself. Steve never really took himself seriously when he got up to talk. It was like, “Okay, guys, here I am again. You get to listen to me for another half an hour.” Soon after he got started, however, everybody recognized that somewhere in this little bedtime story there was something profound. Jaws dropped in the audience when he revealed his discoveries. Steve appeared on stage like a court jester, but left as the principal player. Life was a journey of searching, puzzle solving, and then weaving the discovery into a story; and the storytelling went on and on, particularly over dinner. I don't think he ever missed a dinner, and it had to be a dinner with friends. Steve could put up with a bad hotel room, but not with a bad meal.

Steve loved art, movies, and pictures. He needed these images because he was such a good storyteller. Sometimes on trips Janice and Steve went out to search for a precious piece of art that they would ship home. I think Steve got much inspiration from visual art. He also loved high tech. He always bought the best laptop with the latest software on it. He made himself rather famous by using little cartoons he generated on his computer. One cartoon was a little boy walking down the street toward a giant mouth; he crawled into the throat, and like in Gulliver's Travels, got so small that he entered the molecular world, where he finally bounced around between the hyaluronic acid, collagen, elastin, and fibronectin.

Finally, Steve Gray The Peacemaker. Steve turned the other cheek in rare cases when he was attacked. I was privy to one incident where he tried to get funding for his first research grant through a foundation. The application was rejected. The critique included an unfounded claim of non-originality of data sets. What did Steve do? Most researchers would have gone into a rage and stomped their feet. Steve showed no retribution. He called some of them, gave them his data sets, talked to them at meetings and before long, his foes became his friends. He resolved conflict with goodwill and friendly gestures at every turn. One more little story--my wife Kathy and I joined Janice and Steve on a trip through Sweden across the Baltic Sea to Poland. This was before the Iron Curtain came down, so there was quite a bit of anxiety in all of us. We were driving a rental car, and had to cross various checkpoints at the borders. I recall the checkpoint between Poland and Czechoslovakia, where heavily armed guards took our passports and kept them for a long time. They wanted money, claiming that we hadn't exchanged enough. I argued: “ Let's stand our ground and give them no extra money.” Steve had totally the opposite approach. He pulled out his wallet and said: “What kind of currency do you want?” He was ready to strike a deal to save the day. And Steve always saved the day by bringing home a present for Janice when he was traveling on his own.

In summary, let me say that Steve Gray didn't have a professional life and a home life and a church life--he had A LIFE. He didn't need a formula to balance domestic time with professional time. They simply balanced naturally. Service was service, kindness was kindness, learning was learning, whether it at a convention, in an airplane, in Sunday School, or at a family outing. He never had to take off one hat to put on another. He gave of himself as the trees in the orchards give.

Let me end on that note, because Steve loved plants. He loved to grow fruit, flowers, and herbs in his garden. He nurtured them, and thereby became a nourishing plant to all of us.