Gary Wray's legacy is far-reaching

Lewes and the state benefit from educator’s passion to preserve history
February 11, 2022

The smile on Gary Wray's face as the huge USS Missouri gun barrel arrived in Lewes on a railcar April 17, 2010, is a true indication of his passion to preserve history. It was a crowning achievement for a man who spent his adult life dedicated to serving his community.

People who knew him were shocked to find out Wray, 78, had passed away on Feb. 3 after a short but courageous fight against cancer.

The word retirement was not in his vocabulary. After more than 30 years in education in three school districts, including Cape Henlopen, he really went to work, becoming a Cape Henlopen school board member and president, college professor and sought-after speaker. He was a founding member of the Fort Miles Historical Association, the Cape Henlopen Educational Foundation and the Lewes Junction Railroad & Bridge Association, as well as Sussex Academy charter school in Georgetown, where he helped write the charter to start the school and also served on the board until 2001.

Everyone who knew Gary understood that when he had a vision of what could be, it would eventually become reality. He said his devotion to getting things done was nurtured by his family during his early years growing up in West Virginia.


An educator all his life

He ran successfully for the school board in 2005 and served for five years, three of those as president. He was a teacher, principal and administrator in the district. Prior to his career at Cape, after moving to Delaware in 1966, he was a teacher and administrator at the Caesar Rodney and Milford school districts. He would later return to education as a professor of history at several colleges in Delaware and Maryland, including Wilmington College in Georgetown.

The Cape Henlopen School District is sad to learn of the recent passing of Dr. Gary Wray. Dr. Wray served the district for a number of years in a variety of roles, including teacher, principal and district administrator. After his retirement from the district, he served on the board of education from 2005-10. He would often use the phrase 'keep your eye on the prize' when referring to our students, and that phrase will continue to resonate throughout the district. We will remember Dr. Wray fondly, and will keep his family and close friends in our thoughts during this time,” said Superintendent Bob Fulton.


Plan for a World War II museum

After his tenure on the Cape board, Gary turned his attention to his greatest passion – history.

Along with state park historian Lee Jennings and Bob Frederick, Gary helped create the Fort Miles Historical Association, where he served as president for 17 years. He had one goal – to work with others to make the Fort Miles Museum the best World War II museum in a World War II facility.

With Gary pushing forward, Battery 519 at Fort Miles has been transformed into a showplace in Cape Henlopen State Park.

It was his dream to display bookends of World War II at the museum. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, he and the association located and coordinated the transport of an original gun barrel from the USS Missouri, where the Japanese signed surrender documents on Sept. 2, 1945, to end the war.

The restored gun barrel sits at the entrance to the museum.

Next up was to secure a relic from the USS Arizona, which was sunk during the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor at the start of the war. That mission was also accomplished. The relic is part of the Oil Still Bleeds exhibition inside the museum.

Wray's vision and tenacity helped set the wheels in motion to save Fort Miles and turn the area into a unique setting for World War II artifacts and memorabilia.

Delaware Division of Parks Director Ray Bivens said, “It is impossible to write a tribute to Dr. Gary Wray without mentioning his unmatched passion for Delaware history and education. This could be seen throughout his career in the Cape Henlopen School District, as a college professor, and in retirement in his volunteer efforts such as the Fort Miles Historical Association.

“Gary was always extremely proud of his West Virginia roots, and I frequently teased him that no West Virginian has ever done more to share and preserve Delaware history than him. Every time I walk through the artillery park at Fort Miles, in my head I will see Dr. Wray sitting on the bench near the 16-inch gun sharing the history of the park and Fort Miles.”

John Roberts, an association board member and head of the working group the Bunker Busters, worked closely with Gary. “Without him and the other founders, Fort Miles would be a muddy hole in the ground,” he said.

“His legacy was as an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. The main part of our job was to make sure his passion was directed,” Roberts said.

Wray played a key role in securing many of the guns and military equipment on display at Fort Miles. “He never met a relic he didn't like,” Roberts said.

Roberts said not many people are aware of the key role Wray played in garnering support from the state and its Division of Parks and Recreation. “At first, they were reluctant to have volunteer partners, and there was pushback that things were moving much too fast. But Gary was able to work through that to develop the partnership we have today. Luckily for us, his passion won,” he said.

Joe Johnson, an association board member who owns Shore Electric, remembers Wray as his school principal, and Wray was his wife Carla’s sixth-grade history teacher in the Cape district. “He was one of the best teachers she ever had,” Johnson said.

He said Gary persuaded him to join the FMHA 15 years ago, and he immediately went to work, showing up on weekends and nights for a year to get the lights back on in Battery 519. That was among the first steps in Gary's visionary plan to transform the bunker into a museum.

Johnson said he developed a strong friendship with Wray, and they shared the same passion for collecting guns.

“Gary was the traffic director and the motivator, and he knew how to get the right people together,” he said. “He was very inspirational to everyone. And he was always thinking about Fort Miles. He was a genius for great ideas.”

Johnson said he can still recall board members’ reactions when Wray brought up the idea of obtaining a gun barrel from the USS Missouri to display at the fort. “There were a lot of people shaking their heads,” Johnson said.

Johnson said getting that project to become a reality ranks as Wray’s greatest achievement for the association. “He was definitely the driving force behind the museum,” he said.

“Gary’s legacy is that he brought World War II history back to life in Lewes. Without him, Battery 519 would still be buried in sand,” Johnson said.


Saving the swing bridge

When Wray stepped down from the FMHA, he turned his attention to another history project – preserving Lewes' railroad history and saving the historic Lewes-Rehoboth Canal swing bridge. Once again, he recruited the right people, and the Lewes Junction Railroad & Bridge Association was born.

Randy Voith, LJRBA president, said Gary's passion for preserving Lewes' railroad history was the genesis for the group’s formation. The organization was born out of meetings at the Lewes Bake Shoppe.

Voith said the group called the project a bridge too far, but that didn't deter Gary from putting the wheels in motion to save the historic swing bridge from being scrapped. Voith said to Gary, the key to any railroad preservation efforts was to save the bridge. “We just followed his lead,” he said.

“We wouldn't be nearly as far as we are without him. We are a reflection of Gary's work. He knew the right people, the questions to ask and the right buttons to push. He was not afraid to push, because like he said, he was a doer,” Voith said.

Gary was in charge of the swing bridge project until he stepped down recently because of health issues.

The greatest irony is that he won't be able to see the culmination when the swing bridge is actually moved, a process scheduled to begin Monday, Feb. 14. On Dec. 1, the day it was supposed to be lifted and moved to a permanent display area at the end of American Legion Road, Gary was on hand at the association's tent, chatting about the bridge's history and plans to construct a railroad display on the grounds of the Lewes library.






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