Joe Williams had many influential professors at New Mexico State University – but James R. Gray stands out among the best.
Williams first met Gray, a professor of agricultural economics, as a freshman in 1961. At the time, Williams was holding down two part-time jobs to pay for school and was searching for full-time summer employment when Gray hired him to help with field enumeration work.
It was the beginning of their decades-long friendship.
Now, Williams and other former Aggies with ties to NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences are honoring the late Gray by starting a memorial scholarship in his name to support a graduate student in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business.
“Jim Gray was a special person,” Williams said.
Gray mentored Williams through his undergraduate and graduate studies and later as a young faculty member at NMSU. Williams became a research associate in the College of ACES in 1969 after serving in the United States Army.
“After the service, I became one of his colleagues, and we became much closer on a personal level. I did quite a bit of duck-hunting and deer-hunting with him,” said Williams, now a retired educator and researcher who spent 35 years at Oklahoma State University. “He continued to be one of my biggest supporters when I was a young faculty member.”
Last year, Williams and his wife, Sue, whom he met at NMSU, set out to honor Gray, who retired in 1984 and died in 1997. They decided to start an endowed scholarship in Gray’s name and began reaching out to his former students and colleagues to join their effort.
Williams first called an old classmate, former NMSU chancellor and president Garrey Carruthers, who agreed immediately to support the cause, Williams said. Eight others pledged donations, and by early 2021, the James R. Gray Memorial Endowed Scholarship was fully endowed.
Carruthers, who knew Gray for about 12 years, said Gray was an instrumental figure in his graduate education.
“He encouraged me to go to graduate school and hired me as his research assistant,” Carruthers said.
Carruthers described Gray as a calm and quiet person dedicated to teaching and research.
“He lived his life for his discipline and for his family,” Carruthers added. “Everyone in the department respected him greatly. He was probably considered the No. 1 research faculty in the department at that time.”
Carruthers said he hopes the scholarship encourages more students to study agricultural economics and agricultural business at NMSU.
“Dr. Gray was inspiration,” he said. “When students learn about Dr. Gray, I hope they respect the fact that he expected students to do well and move on in life.”
James Libbin, one of Gray’s colleagues at NMSU, contributed to the scholarship fund as a way to honor Gray’s commitment to graduate education. Libbin said he worked with Gray in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business for about five years.
“Jim had a passion for mentoring graduate students and did a wonderful job throughout his career,” said Libbin, who retired from NMSU in 2017.
One of the many graduate students Gray mentored during his career was Libbin’s his late wife, Mary Bray.
“Mary was one of Jim’s students, and she would have wanted to contribute to the scholarship,” Libbin said, “because she loved working with Jim.”
Williams said plans are underway to award the scholarship by the start of the fall 2022 semester. It is the first scholarship for graduate students in his former department.
“We’re so pleased to add the James R. Gray Memorial Endowed Scholarship to our portfolio of offerings, as graduate students become more of a focus when scholarships are established,” said Derek Dictson, president of the NMSU Foundation and vice president of University Advancement. “Graduate school is a time when many are juggling school, jobs and other responsibilities, and having the support of a scholarship can make a huge difference in the life of a graduate student.”
Jay Lillywhite, the current department head of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, said the scholarship honors Gray’s legacy of positively influencing students.
“These former students and their families are honoring Dr. Gray by continuing his legacy of positively influencing students indefinitely though their generous gifts. Their efforts are greatly appreciated,” Lillywhite said.
For Williams, leading the scholarship effort has allowed him to fulfill a long-held promise to give back to his alma mater and those who mentored him.
“I’m indebted to NMSU for everything I’ve accomplished professionally, and I always wanted to give back to the university,” he said. “This scholarship is a perfect way to recognize and show appreciation to Dr. Gray and give back to NMSU.”