Aug. 3—ROCHESTER — Rochester John Marshall 1965 graduate and former singles tennis state champion Bob Gray will be remembered as much for how he used to hold court as he did rule Rochester’s tennis courts.
Gray died this past July 1 at the age of 77, losing a battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. He is survived by his wife, Mariann, and son, Chad.
“Bob was really outgoing,” said Dr. Scott Litin, a lifetime friend of Gray’s, including both of them spending much of their teenage years playing tennis and hanging out at the Rochester Outdoor Tennis Center and later in life at the Rochester Athletic Club. “You knew when Bob was in the room. He had this infectious laugh and he was a force.”
It was through tennis that Gray built much of his identity and ultimately became a Rochester icon.
Gray reached the Minnesota state singles finals three times, losing to fellow John Marshall star Chuck Darley in the championship as a freshman and a sophomore, then finally winning it all in 1965, after Darley graduated.
Longtime Rochester Tennis Connection owner Tim Butorac recalls watching Gray win that state title. Butorac was a freshman at Robbinsdale Cooper and had only recently taken up tennis when he watched Gray do his thing.
The JM champion made quite an impression.
“I remember walking back to the parking lot after the match and I said to my friends, ‘If I could ever be as good as Bob Gray, I could call myself a real tennis player,’ ” Butorac said.
Gray went on to Indiana University where he received a full tennis scholarship. He only played two years there, as Gray was struck with the hardship of losing both of his parents just 11 days apart during his sophomore year at Indiana. His father died of a heart condition, his mother of liver cancer.
Gray’s tennis days didn’t end there. He had a run of playing amateur matches after graduating from college and later became a fifth-grade teacher at Gage Elementary School for 30 years. Gray also acted as Rochester Mayo’s boys tennis head coach for seven years.
But it was always Gray’s personality that showed through most. He was a character, through and through.
Fred King is a fellow John Marshall 1965 graduate. King also played tennis, but only recreationally as JM’s teams were loaded with talent and difficult to crack.
But King being lesser of a player didn’t stop Gray from frequently hitting tennis balls with him. They’d often end up at Gray’s neighbor’s house, George Waters, who had his own private tennis court.
“I was terrible, but Bob was very patient with me,” King said. “We’d go hit for about a half hour and then he’d ask me to play a real set. He’d tell me, ‘Let’s see if you can win a point.’ He’d win three or four games, and then he’d finally miss a shot. And then he’d say, ‘Let’s do it again.’ He was doing that just for fun, but it was a good learning experience for me. I ended up falling in love with the game, partly because of him.”
It was Gray’s personality that kept King coming back for more.
“He was always upbeat,” King said. “He smiled a lot and was always laughing and fun to be around. He told a lot of tennis stories.”
Those stories never stopped, even well past Gray’s playing days.
Butorac listened to him spin yarn after yarn at the Rochester Outdoor Tennis Center through the years. It never got old.
“I really enjoyed him,” Butorac said. “He was a great storyteller, very insightful. And he was the center of the room, laughing and talking and telling stories.”
Until his final few years, when his Alzheimer’s really took over, Gray was always his playful self, too.
Of all of his friends, Litin likely knew him best. The two spent plenty of free time playing tennis together and later racquetball, where both turned into a force.
They were close competitors. But as much as Gray wanted to win those battles, he always showed up before and after with his sense of humor.
Litin once beat Gray in a city racquetball tournament whose results were printed in the Rochester Post Bulletin, only the score of the match included.
Gray cut that result out of the newspaper and then landed it in a 2-inch frame.
He then presented it to Litin, laughing as only Bob Gray could.