CHARLESTON, W.Va. — About once a year, New Jersey resident Jim Gray receives a simple thank you note in the mail.
Each year’s young writer, Gray says, pens a sentiment about like this: “I’m grateful. I love playing for the Mountaineers. This will go a long way to help me.”
As meaningful as the “Chris Gray Memorial Scholarship” may be to its recipient, the thank you notes are equally meaningful to Jim Gray, Chris’s father.
The thank you notes, sent by football players benefiting from the scholarship, are a symbol that Chris, who died at age 32 in the Cantor Fitzgerald offices of One World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, continues to contribute to young lives.
Despite their intense grief, the Gray family and Chris’s friends went to work almost immediately 15 years ago to establish the scholarship. Since its inception, $51,000 in awards have been granted.
“It speaks of Chris and his family,” said Tim Bolling of the WVU Foundation. “They epitomize grace. They immediately wanted to turn it around and find a way to help.”
Chris Gray, who was a West Virginia University quarterback from 1987 to 1991, is likely the best known of the West Virginians who died in the terrorist attacks 15 years ago.
But, as with the endowed scholarship in Gray’s name, the legacy of those other West Virginians’ lives on through good works continuing in their names:
Paul Ambrose, a Huntington native who was a fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. He is the namesake of the Paul Ambrose Healthcare for All Leadership Institute, affiliated with the American Medical Student Association. His name also lives on with the Paul Ambrose Outstanding Student Activist Award, with the same organization. Closer to home, Ambrose is the namesake of Huntington’s Paul Ambrose Trail for Health, a bicycle and pedestrian trail system meant to improve the wellness of that city’s residents.
Parkersburg native Mary Lou Hague, an employee of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. on the 88th and 89th floors of the World Trade Center’s south tower, has scholarships in her honor to benefit students at the University of North Carolina and at Parkersburg High School, her college and high school alma maters.
The “James K. Samuel Memorial Scholarship” benefits West Virginia University students in memory of Jim Samuel, a 1993 WVU graduate and native of Jamesburg, NJ, who was working in Tower One. Samuel was an assistant commodities broker who worked on the 92nd floor at Carr Futures for five years. The scholarship benefits West Virginia University students who have similar interests to Samuel’s.
The Shelley Marshall Foundation is named for Shelley Marshall, the wife of Morgantown native Donn Marshall. Shelley was killed at the Pentagon, where she was a budget analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. The foundation supports a variety of causes, especially children and senior citizens in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
As with the other victims, Chris Gray had everything to live for. He was a well-liked backup quarterback at WVU, getting the most playing time his freshman and senior years. He’d had a free agent tryout with the Miami Dolphins. He’d gone to work for the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald on the 101st through 105th floors of One World Trade Center in Manhattan.
He was about to get married.
Kelly Van Metre, then Kelly Gangwer, had met Chris in college at WVU. They were friends at first. He made her laugh. He made everyone laugh. He was also a 6-4, 207-pound guy with sandy brown hair. They started to date and eventually moved together to Hoboken, New Jersey.
Their last weekend together, Sept. 8 and 9, had been pleasant. They had gone in to New York City and visited the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.
“We had had a typical weekend for us, kind of preparing for the week ahead,” said Van Metre, who was working as a nurse practitioner. “At that time I did do 24-hour shifts, so I was mentally preparing.”
By Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, Van Metre had wrapped up a 24-hour shift. She was exhausted. As was her routine, she went straight to a friend’s house near the hospital for a nap to recover.
She was asleep for about 30 minutes when the phone rang.
“Everybody who knew me, knew I would be asleep. So I didn’t answer it,” Van Metre said. “It rang again, I picked it up and no one was there.”
To this day, she believes that caller was Chris.
“It was an unknown number. It wasn’t a number that registered on my caller ID. I don’t think it came from his cell phone, but I do think it was.
“That, of course, haunts me. I wish he would have heard a voice that he recognized and might have given him comfort.”
She got another call, and this time she answered. This time, it was a friend on the line:
“Have you spoken to Chris?”
And Van Metre turned on the TV to see the smoke and horror that the rest of the nation was seeing too.
At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11, crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The Cantor Fitzgerald offices where Chris worked were two to six floors above the impact zone.
“I was at work,” recalled Jim Gray, Chris’s father. “I was in New Jersey working for the state. I had gotten a call from a friend of mine. It was early in the morning. At that point, we thought it was an accident.
“We got to the TV and found out what happened. We tried to reach Chris and couldn’t. I tried to call his girlfriend, and she couldn’t reach Chris. We got it by television like everyone.”
In Morgantown, close friend Greg Hunter was also deeply concerned and trying to call Chris.
Hunter, who publishes Blue & Gold News, a weekly magazine dedicated to WVU sports, had become tight with Gray through a summer softball league. The quarterback played outfield and could throw on a line to home plate. He could also hit the ball out of the park. But his greatest gift was his humor.
“He could make fun of himself,” Hunter said. “He had a fumble against Virginia Tech on the goal line his senior year. He could do a re-enactment with a hamburger at a cookout.”
Hunter and Gray had made plans to meet up at West Virginia’s scheduled Sept. 15 football game at Maryland.
“He called the day before (Sept. 11) and left a message with me. It was, ‘Hey call me, I’m going to be down there, I’ll get there at 5. Call me and we’ll make arrangements and meet up that night.’”
Hunter got busy and planned to return the call the following day.
“I didn’t get a chance to get back with him,” Hunter said.
When Hunter got the news that the Towers had been struck, “I started scrambling, trying to call and trying everything.”
The message lived on in Hunter’s voicemail for months and months.
“It took me a year to erase that message,” he said. “That was hard.”
The North Tower burned for 102 minutes before collapsing at 10:28 a.m. because of structural failure.
For the minutes, hours and days after the attack, Chris’s family and friends held out hope that he’d somehow survived.
“There was so much hope in the first few days that there could be a survivor,” Van Metre said. “There were rumors that people were stuck in stairwells. Just all this hopeful stuff, which after the fact gave me some comfort. The buildings came down but I think they were still hopeful that they were going to get out.”
Someone told Gray’s parents that he was among Cantor Fitzgerald employees who were evacuating down the stairwell but who couldn’t make it out on time.
“He was on his way out, someone else had told us, and they just didn’t make it, but he was on his way out,” Jim Gray said.
Three days after the tragedy, Cantor Fitzgerald confirmed that two thirds of its workforce had died in the World Trade Center.
“Everybody assumed that everybody had died,” Van Metre said, “but so many people didn’t have any evidence except that their loved one didn’t come home.”
Those who loved Chris have participated in a variety of memorial services over the past 15 years — some for Cantor Fitzgerald employees, some at West Virginia University.
For Jim Gray, the most meaningful were resolutions passed by the West Virginia Legislature. The documents still hang in the Gray home in Manalapan, New Jersey: “Feb. 22, 2002. Commemorating and memorializing the life of Chris Gray.”
The resolution provides the highlights of Gray’s 32 years of life. It concludes, “The passing of Chris Gray should not go unnoticed.”
To Jim Gray, that’s the reason his family remains thankful to the people of West Virginia and why they continue to give back in Chris Gray’s name.
“They went out of their way. We can’t thank the people of West Virginia enough. They’re very special.”