The Story Of Howard Gray


For many of us, December 8, 1980 is a day remembered with sadness. It was the day John Lennon, of the Beatles, was murdered. I, Howard Graylike many “children of the ‘60’s,” grieved the passing of an icon of our generation. That night, as I thought back on those days, I found my mind moving further into the past. An unexpected memory suddenly emerged. It was that of a classmate from junior high school whom I had been guilty of laughing at as other students ridiculed and abused him. His name was Howard Ray. I had not seen or heard of him in twenty years. A deep remorse came over me. That night I wrote the song, “Howard Gray.”

At that time I was living in Nashville, TN, honing my craft as a commercial songwriter. The next morning I looked over the lyric and decided that no one would relate to the subject matter, so I threw it in the trash. A few hours later my wife, Maggie, was emptying the trash and found it. She said it was the best thing I had written and that I should keep it. She was right.

The song began to get a very positive response at “writer’s nights” along Music Row. It was the only one I had ever written that the audience grew dead silent every time I played it. I decided to change the name to “Howard Gray,” as a gesture of trying to protect the real Howard’s anonymity, though I thought the chances were very slim he’d ever hear it.

Somewhere around 1984 a fellow songwriter, Gary Hall, decided he’d had enough of Music City and returned to Boston, where he was a street singer. It was soon after that I received one afternoon a 2 ½ feet X 2” cylinder tube through the mail. The return address was a school in Schenectady, NY. I opened it and pulled out a rolled-up, composite picture depicting “Howard Gray” as drawn by the students of a 4th grade class. In a phone conversation with the teacher, Mrs. Planck, I learned she had heard Gary play the song in a Boston subway and had asked him to come to her class to sing it. (I wish I could recall the name of the school. If anyone reading this can provide any further info, please let me know!)

In 1985, I was signed as a staff songwriter to Buckhorn Music in Nashville. The publisher, the late Marijohn Wilkin, was already a legendary songwriter/publisher in town. She had written many hits, including the classics, “Long Black Veil” and “One Day At A Time.” She was also Kris Kristofferson’s first publisher. She immediately fell in love with “Howard” and diligently began the hard work of trying to get it recorded by country and gospel artists. She succeeded in 1986 when Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters, a veteran southern gospel trio, put it on their album, “Let’s Turn the Lights On.” Wendy’s vocal was a spoken recitation of the lyrics ala Jimmy Dean’s “Big John,” a pop/country hit many years earlier.

When I realized that the song would be played on southern gospel stations nationwide, a frightening thought occurred to me. What if the real Howard actually heard the song? The name and the experience would be so real to him he undoubtedly would know it was about him. What a tragedy, I thought, if in an effort to get the song out where others might benefit from it, he perceived it as being exploitive of his pain. I redoubled efforts to find him.

A week later my parents, in my hometown of Oskaloosa, KS, called to say they had just seen Howard’s father on the town square. They told him I was trying to find Howard. Shortly, I had his address and phone number. He had been living in Topeka, KS for many years.

I then recorded a “letter by tape” to Howard on my cassette player. I told him who I was, where I lived, and about the song. I wondered if he’d remember me, or the incident. I told him I was scared to contact him, since I didn’t know what his reaction would be. Would he be angry? Hurt? Ask me to stop using the song? Would he want to sue me? Beat me up? I didn’t know. I told him I wanted him to know how much good the song had done in a few short years in schools and churches. On the other side of the tape I included several renditions of the song sung by Gary Hall, Wendy Bagwell, and a few other folk singers. I mailed it with apprehension.

A few days later, I received a phone call from one of his relatives. She said Howard was very shy and had asked her to call. He had, indeed, received the tape and was deeply moved. He had cried, she said. He had quit school as a result of those kinds of experiences and still could neither read nor write. His life had been a difficult one. Yes, he remembered me and the incident. Yes, he was very glad that his painful experience was having a healing effect on children. Then she said the one thing I had not anticipated: “Howard says to tell you he forgives you.”

I was overwhelmed with surprise and gratitude and still am as I write this years later. What has happened since that day has been amazing. Some of the highlights:

-- Howard and I began to talk with some regularity on the phone and began a friendship many years later than we both would have preferred. On the other hand, we agree, maybe the timing has been just right.

-- The song has become a kind of “underground” phenomenon. There seems to be an invisible grapevine where others find out about it.

-- Hundreds of schools have used the song in anti-bullying campaigns and self-esteem bolstering efforts.

-- Howard and I both have received literally thousands of letters and drawings from children over the years from around the country, children who tell us their stories of bullying or being bullied. One school in Hesston, KS presented us with a giant banner signed by all the children in the school.

-- A young New England educator, David Levine, began to sing the song in his classroom to positive effect. So much so, in 1990 he flew to Nashville to meet me and to begin planning a15-minute educational video he financed called, Through the Eyes of Howard Gray. Later that year, Howard and I met David at the old classroom at the school in Oskaloosa. Toby Carey, a video photographer from Woodstock, NY shot footage of Howard and me talking about the experience. The first portion of the video (and now, DVD) is of amateur child actors from a junior high school in Woodstock reenacting the story.

-- In 2001 I received a call from two high school students who were calling on behalf of their senior class. They were trying to reach Howard to see if he would be able to come to New York that following spring in order to deliver the commencement address. They said their class had heard the song in the 2nd grade and had voted it the most important learning experience in their years of schooling.

-- Gloria Gaither, of The Gaither Homecoming, invited me to sing the song at the October, 2001 Praise Gathering in Indianapolis. I did and was amazed that most of the performers I met there had already heard the song “somewhere.”

-- I received a letter in 2006 “out of the blue” from a young man who heard the song at his elementary school in the early ‘90’s. As a result, he says he has become a child psychologist.

-- In January, 2007 Howard and I visited the 6th grade classes of Meadow Lane and Underwood Elementary Schools in Lee’s Summit, MO. It was the first time Howard had been able to join me in a school setting. We talked with the students about the DVD and the song. A humbling image I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life is of children lining up to get Howard’s autograph, the look on his face and on theirs. He’s their hero. And he’s mine, too.

Now, the song, the DVD, David's classroom experiences, and the experiences of those using the church-related study, are as viable as ever.

Please go to the "Music Store" to obtain copies of the DVD and guide.

Educators and others interested in David Levine's work may contact him at davidalevine.com.