Right up until his passing in late 2012 at age 93, philanthropist John Gray was highly influential in the Pacific Northwest — not only through his business philosophies, but also his widespread giving to everything from cancer research to education to conservation.
Gray was widely respected in Oregon during his life. But in his final years, he and his family took steps to ensure his work to better the state was nowhere near over. They made a flurry of huge gifts and established not one, but two foundations devoted to Oregon's environment.
In 2011, Gray and his family established the Yarg Foundation, which would execute a 10-year initiative to support land trusts in Oregon to the tune of $10 million. As part of that initiative, Gray made a $4.5 million gift shortly before his death to protect farms, forests, and watersheds in the state. The land trust gift came on the heels of a $1 million gift to Habitat for Humanity and $5 million to cancer research.
If that weren’t enough, Gray established another foundation shortly before his death, the Gray Family Foundation, endowed with $20 million devoted to environmental education and building a new generation of Oregon conservationists.
Not a bad way to spend one's final years.
In fact, the more you learn about John Gray, the more you realize this was par for the course. Before establishing the new foundations, the Gray Family Advised Fund distributed $43 million over 20 years. Science and art museums, low-income housing, higher education, urban revitalization — it seems there are few altruistic endeavors in Oregon that John Gray wasn’t involved in. Oh, he was also a war hero.
Gray grew up poor in rural Oregon, and first acquired his wealth through building up and selling a chainsaw company, which is possibly the most Oregon-y rags-to-riches story I can imagine. He went on to become a prolific developer, most notably of resorts in Oregon in Washington, and the Johns Landing development on Portland’s Willamette Riverfront.
But even as a developer (and a Republican), Gray was instrumental in advancing the state's green approach to growth. He was a major proponent of land use laws, a founder of open space nonprofit Thousand Friends of Oregon, and a promoter of buildings that respected their natural surroundings.
Leaders in Oregon have credited him, along with land use pioneers like Tom McCall, for making the state the conservation leader it is today. And with this final burst of giving and philanthropic endeavors started in 2012, Gray will surely continue shaping Oregon into the future.