Timely fashion-- Michigan's 'Lady Liberty' saluted for legal activism

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

It's never too "Late" to make a difference in the lives of others.

That very well could be the motto of Audrey Nesbitt Gray, the recipient of the 2010 Liberty Bell Award from the State Bar of Michigan.

Each year the State Bar of Michigan honors outstanding service performed by a non-lawyer when it confers the Liberty Bell Award to someone who has given "time and energy to strengthen the effectiveness of the American system of freedom under law, in keeping with the spirit of our Constitution."

Gray, a retired teacher and a longtime community activist, was honored with the prestigious award at the State Bar's annual meeting in Grand Rapids this fall. Chosen for her work to improve the lives of residents in juvenile detention centers and for her work on a booklet titled, "You and the Law," which is distributed to Michigan ninth-graders, Gray was a gracious honoree.

"When I received my letter from State Bar Director Janet Welch, my response was intense delight, but it took about a week for it to become believable," says this beloved Kalamazoo resident, who is considered a pillar of her community.

In 1993, while Gray was serving as chair of the Juvenile Services Committee for the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home, she was instrumental in starting a program called "The Late Show" in which volunteers read aloud over a microphone two evenings a week as the young offenders listened from their cells.

"The previous year I'd discovered a 'story hour' where volunteers were reading to residents at a juvenile detention center in Walnut Creek, California," explains Gray. "I believed our juvenile home would benefit from such a program, and it was implemented the following year in Kalamazoo."

With 100 percent of the residents now participating, the response to the program has been gratifying to both Gray and to the program's nearly 100 volunteers.

The success of "The Late Show" has led to the creation of the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Library with support from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, the Kalamazoo Foundation, and individual donors. The program itself has spread to other juvenile homes in Michigan, including those in Grand Haven, Whitehall, Grand Rapids, Midland, and Saginaw. A similar program has also been adopted in Camden County, N.J. and Uppsala, Sweden.

Besides working tirelessly to enrich the lives of juvenile offenders through exposure to literature, Audrey Gray has been the driving force behind the "Youth and the Law" booklet that gets distributed to ninth grade students in Michigan's public schools. Originally published in 1968 by the SBM and the Michigan Lawyer's Auxiliary, the booklet has been revised eight times and includes many legal subjects pertinent to youth. Regulations for obtaining a driver's license to use of tobacco and alcohol and from voting to search and seizure are just a few of the topics discussed in a style written to appeal to young people 14-18 years of age.

"This booklet includes youthful offenses such as shoplifting, fighting, graffiti, and marijuana possession, and it even covers mini bikes, mopeds, gopeds, and pocket bikes," says Gray.

Gray remembers attending ceremonies where the Liberty Bell Award was presented, but she never thought she would one day be the recipient, despite being raised in a family where community service was expected.

"During childhood, all around me were reminders of my family legacy," she says.

Her great-uncle had served on his township board for 37 years, her great-grandfather, Thomas Henry Nesbitt, had founded the first bank in Schoolcraft , Mich., and her mother was active in the Historical Society, the Ladies' Library Association, and other service organizations.

Gray's mother was a teacher who inspired her to follow the same path. An educator for 25 years, Gray says her favorite grades and subjects were kindergarten and vocal music, respectively.

"What I enjoyed about teaching kindergarten was the fact that this was the beginning of a child's education and that, as a teacher, I had to involve the parents in the learning process," she says.

What many people do not know is that Gray earned her degree and teaching certificate from Western Michigan University in 1943 and taught for five years. After an absence of 18 years while raising her daughters, she returned to the profession. Had she not returned to teaching, Gray says her profession likely would have been in farming or politics.

Coming from five generations of farmers, a young Audrey Nesbitt was no stranger to hard work and often could be seen driving her father's tractor or doing the chores typically shouldered by men. Today her farming roots come in handy as she enjoys gardening as a hobby.

Gray's interest in politics also has remained strong.

"Last fall I campaigned for a distant cousin's son, Eric Nesbitt, on his successful bid for State Representative for the 80th State House," she explains. "I enjoy being an active community, state, and national citizen."

Gray's late husband, Llewellyn Gray, whom she married in 1943, was the chief supporter of her many "projects" over the years.

"I had known Lew since I was 12 years old," says Gray. "We grew up in the same community, and he always told me he admired strong women. He always encouraged me to teach and to follow my vision," she says. "He assisted much in terms of time and money to the Ladies Library Association, the Kalamazoo Lawyers Auxiliary, 'The Late Show,' and the No Drug Rally, which took place at the Silverdome in Pontiac," she adds.

Gray says her daughters, Deborah Gray and Gretchen Shannon, have also supported her causes, from donating books to "The Late Show" to appearing with their mother at her functions. Deborah Gray, senior attorney with Gray & Gray PC in Portage, was on hand last October to see her mother receive the Liberty Bell Award and is proud to have a parent who has been such a fine role model.

"Mother always believed in getting started and giving it your best shot," says Deborah Gray. "She didn't just talk the talk; she walked the walk."

Published: Fri, Jan 7, 2011