A St. Joseph, Missouri community treasure is celebrating 100 years this summer.
Joe Gray, founder of Gray Manufacturing, isn’t just an icon of St. Joseph business. His generosity has made him known for his contributions to the local art scene, as well as advising on the development of missiles in WWII.
And it all started with a washing machine motor.
Joe Gray began his early education at what would eventually be Missouri Western State University. At the time, it was St. Joseph Community College, and it was within walking distance of Joe’s home.
But when it was time to finish his education at the University of Kansas, Joe had nearly 80 miles to travel. No problem; Joe’s father outfitted his bicycle with a washing machine motor and off he went to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering.
His interest in aeronautical engineering was sparked when Joe witnessed the arrival of Charles Lindbergh in St. Joseph at the close of his trans-Atlantic flight from Europe. That interest would carry him through not only his degree, but also lend service to the U.S. Navy, where Joe’s specialty was discovered by his superiors. Joe’s expertise helped shape missile development during the war.
In 1921, Joe’s father, J.H. Gray, patented an auto lift designed to simplify the process of changing a tire or completing a repair. Joe and J.H. Gray partnered to manufacture and sell air lifts directly to service stations and automotive repair shops. Their “try-before-you-buy” approach helped get their air lift jacks into shops; the quality and safety features ensured their air jacks never left a shop once it had been tried.
Their novel approach to business didn’t stop at their products. The same thoughtful consideration that developed long-lasting, unique solutions that increased both safety and productivity also went to work on how Joe and J.H. ran the day-to-day operations at Gray Manufacturing. Employees at Gray Manufacturing felt valued and empowered to contribute to the company’s success, and even today, Joe loves to be in the shop, shaking hands with employees and showing his appreciation for each team member’s contribution to Gray quality.
It might surprise you to learn that someone so steeped in solving the professional mechanic’s repair challenges would also have a keen eye for artistic expression. Last year, the Albrecht-Kemper Museum honored Joe Gray with the Joe Show: Selections from the Gray Manufacturing Corporate Collection. The Museum’s exhibition displayed 143 of Gray’s 1,300 art pieces to celebrate Joe’s 99th birthday.
Joe has been a pioneer in the auto and truck repair industry, and he is known for the Gray Difference that permeates the professional culture at Gray Manufacturing.
On his 100th birthday, we celebrate a legacy that will influence generations to come.