BETHANY — Albert Gray, the chief executive of The Children’s Center — a rehabilitation hospital for children recovering from premature births or four-wheeler, near-drowning or other traumatic accidents — originally was hired, in 1978, to close the center because of its poor financial performance.
Gray instead turned around the private nonprofit, now 120-bed hospital, leading it to become one of Oklahoma’s foremost healthcare providers for children with disabilities.
Patients, who average 6 years of age, and are referred from OU Medical Center, Tulsa, Baylor University, Shriners Hospital in Louisiana and elsewhere, stay anywhere from 25 days to two to three years. They’re weaned from ventilators and, through physical, occupational, speech and music therapies, learn to swallow, sit up, grasp things, sing, talk, stand and walk again, before returning home to their respective families.
Gray, 60, credits the longevity of his employees for the center’s success. Many of the 550, including 30 certified teachers, have 20-plus years of service, he said.
He sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots.
A: I’m the next to the youngest of six kids. My oldest sibling, a brother, is 18 years older. We grew up in Lookeba, which is 30 minutes north of Anadarko, between Binger and Hinton. My father, who had a third-grade education, worked at a filling station he ended up buying, along with quite a few farms in the area because he foresaw the future of natural gas and possibility of ensuing royalties. He opened Gray Oil Co. in the early ’50s, which distributed gas and propane, and sold the company in the late ’70s. My mother, who taught my dad to read in their early marriage, worked three days a week, keeping books for the company. The office was only a block from our home.
Q: What were the highlights of your childhood?
A: It primarily evolved around music and going to church. My parents would take us to gospel concerts in Oklahoma City and, for several years, they brought us weekly to music lessons here; I play acoustical guitar. We’d go to summer music camps at the Stamps School of Music in Texas. I played summer league baseball in Binger and was coached by the same coach, Mr. (Hugh) Haley, as Johnny Bench, who came out to our practices. In high school, I played second base.
Q: And college?
A: I never dreamed I’d go to college. From age 10, I’d worked on a peanut farm on one of the farms my dad owned and my brother farmed. By age 12, I was driving a tractor, and by 14, I was driving a truck. I thought I’d maybe go into the trucking business or take over my parents’ business. But, after researching jobs in which I could earn a good living, I decided on pharmacy and enrolled at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. After two years, I was accepted into the pharmacy program, but when I worked a part-time job in a pharmacy, I realized I wouldn’t be happy working locked up inside a pharmacy. I had enough credits to earn a chemistry degree.
Q: In your early career, you worked as a forensic chemist for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. Tell us about that.
A: Originally, I’d planned to go to work for the FBI, and all you needed was any degree. But rather than take an opportunity in D.C., I chose to stay closer to home and work as a forensic chemist for OSBI, starting in Lawton and moving to Oklahoma City. I held a federal narcotics license and, over four years, testified as an expert witness more than 200 times in state and federal courts across Oklahoma. Most of my cases involved marijuana, LSD and PCP. After OSBI, I worked a year for the Oklahoma City Police Department, helping them set up their forensic lab.
Q: What led you to change from law enforcement to health care?
A: After visiting my grandmother in a nursing home, I — at age 24 — decided I could do an even better job of running one. I went to night school at OU for a semester to earn the necessary license, talked to experts and bought land in south Oklahoma City, where I developed and owned the South Park Health Care Center. Since I worked through college, I still had the money my parents gave me for my education. About that same time, The Children’s Center coincidentally — or fortuitously — was getting ready to close down and needed someone with a nursing home license to help them close. In those days, the center was licensed as a nursing home for children who needed long-term care. I was suggested by my sister Carol Gray, who’d been volunteering there for a year and still works here as chief operating officer.
Q: Did you originally intend to save the center?
A: No, I took the board at its word that it needed to be closed. But I think God uses youthful people some time. I looked at the kids and what the center potentially could do for the community and couldn’t let it close down. The center had been losing $10,000 a month, but we started operating within our budget and, within a few months, stopped the bleeding and turned things around. For the first 10 years, I mowed the lawn, and for 15 years, took the same $700-a-month stipend. I’ve always earned my living outside of here, through real estate, farming and other interests, and I was lucky enough to have the right parents. After they sold their business, they joined my sister here as volunteers and donated money along with many of us employees.
Q: You credit the community for the center’s greatest achievements. Why?
A: That’s right. At age 24 or 25, I had the opportunity to seek counsel from people like Dr. Bill Thurman at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, the late Jean Gumerson with the Presbyterian Health Foundation and Lloyd Rader, who headed DHS. The good Lord brought the right people to the table with us. Community volunteer Wanda Swisher connected us with the Gaylord family, the Noble Foundation, Mabee and Inasmuch foundations, and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which donated the $9.7 million to build our new 150,000-square foot rehab hospital in 1997.
Q: Over the past three decades, have you ever thought about leaving?
A: I think it’s human to want to do something else. But down deep, I know that I’m doing the right thing, and we’re always expanding. Sometimes, society doesn’t think kids are as important (as other things). But they are. Throughout my life, I’ve tried to adhere to the principles my parents taught me — to work hard and to honor God in my daily work.
•Position: The Children’s Center, chief executive officer
•Birth date: July 19, 1953
•Home church: Crossings Community Church
•Family: Kimberly Gray, married seven years; sons Aaron Gray, who works in analysis for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, and Justin Gray, a U.S. Air Force major in Alaska; daughter Jennifer Seachrist, director of outpatient services at The Children’s Center; and three grandchildren, ages 1 to 8.
•Education: Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU), bachelor’s in chemistry
•Sideline enterprises: He owns Mustang-based Industrial Gasket, which manufactures parts for Halliburton, Baker Hughes and others, and holds oil and ranching interests in western Oklahoma.
•Professional memberships: Oklahoma Hospital Association, Economic Club of Oklahoma, Rotary Club of West Oklahoma City, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Northwest Chamber of Commerce
•On the e-reader: “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior” by Dan Millman
•For fun: Riding motorcycles and flying airplanes