Nellie Gray, 86, dies; was March for Life founder and emcee

Nellie Gray, a pro-life leader who founded the March for Life in 1974, addresses the crowd during the annual rally on the National Mall in Washington Jan. 24. The annual pro-life demonstration marks the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion across the nation. (CNS photo/Peter Lockley)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Nellie Gray, who started the annual March for Life parade to protest the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide, has died at age 86.

She was found dead in her home Aug. 13 in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood by a March for Life staffer, Gene Ruane, who said the medical examiner will determine the cause and date of her death.

The March for Life has grown into one of the signature events of the pro-life movement. After the first march in 1974, Gray, a Texas native, established the March for Life Education & Defense Fund to sustain it.

Each year in her remarks, Gray exhorted pro-lifers to promote and adhere to a series of "life principles" that would eliminate abortion and enhance life, to which she said there should be "no exception! No compromise!"

Ruane, an administrative assistant with the March for Life, told Catholic News Service Aug. 14 that leadership of the organization would be assumed by Terrence Scanlon, who has been its vice president "since the beginning."

Funeral information was not immediately available. Gray was a member of St. Mary, Mother of God Parish in Washington.

Born June 25, 1926, in Texas, Gray served as a corporal in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. She later earned a bachelor's degree in business and a master's in economics. She worked for the federal government for 28 years at the State Department and the Department of Labor, while attending Georgetown University Law School. Gray later practiced law before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 2010 profile, Gray said she wasn't a Catholic as a child, but "I had elements of the Catholic faith in my life." As a young woman, she encountered a priest who brought to light what the Catholic Church was about, and he tutored her until she joined the church.

Gray also spoke of the march's origins. "I received a call from the Knights of Columbus," she recalled. "I didn't even know who they were, but they explained their stance against abortion and needed a place to meet to discuss plans for a march. That place was my living room. About 30 people gathered there and they asked if I could help get speakers for the event since I knew Capitol Hill well.

"What I couldn't get was a master of ceremonies for the event," she added. "Politicians didn't want to get involved in a march, and people at that time weren't interested in marches after the civil rights movement and other things. That left the emcee job to me."

Tributes to Gray poured in as news of her death spread.

"The indelible mark she has left in this world can be seen in the generations of lives saved as a result of her dedicated work on behalf of the unborn," said an Aug. 13 statement from Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life. "As we approach the tragic 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we are confident her legacy of pro-life activism will continue to inspire and effect change."

"She had a fierce heart that valued all people -- born and unborn -- fearlessly working to create a picture worth a thousand words -- the sight of hundreds of thousands of peaceful Americans calling on their courts and their legislators to defend life in law," said an Aug. 14 statement from Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life.

"As a colleague in national pro-life leadership, Nellie was always an inspiration to the rest of us," said an Aug. 13 statement by Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. "Her devotion was on display that same year, 2008, when, despite being in the hospital during the March for Life, she nevertheless was present at all all-day meeting of national leaders the very next morning."

Gray "mobilized millions to protest the injustice of Roe v. Wade and to speak out on behalf of unborn children, who have no voice of their own. While Miss Gray did not see Roe overturned in her lifetime, the movement she helped build -- especially its young members -- will not rest until the right to life is restored once again," said Deirdre McQuade, assistant director for policy and communications at the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, in an Aug. 14 statement.

In 2008, the National Pro-Life Religious Council presented Gray with its Pro-Life Recognition Award. Later that day, she tripped and fell on the stage at the opening rally for the March for Life and had to be taken to the hospital with a head injury.

"My heart is broken by the loss of Nellie Gray, a true pro-life hero and role model. At the same time, I celebrate that Nellie is with our Lord who she loved so dearly, said an Aug. 13 statement by Bryan Kemper, founder of Stand True Ministry and director of youth outreach for Priests for Life. "I have had the honor of working with Nellie for years and every time I march in D.C. in January, I know she will be watching over us and praying for us."

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who is co-chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, called her an "extraordinary pro-life leader" who was unstoppable as emcee of the march "even in the worst of weather and poor health."

Because of her leadership, the Roe decision "has been marked annually with a somber remembrance that gives voice to the defenseless unborn and the women wounded by abortion," Smith said Aug. 14. "In Nellie's name we will continue her legacy of unceasing commitment to defending the unborn."

"Many pro-lifers sometimes seem to take the annual march for granted, but the longevity of the March is actually a remarkable achievement, said an Aug. 14 blog posting on National Review Online by Michael J. New, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and an assistant professor at the University of Alabama.

"Some 39 years ago, pro-life activists felt a need to properly commemorate the first anniversary of the tragic Roe v. Wade decision. That is when the idea for the March for Life was born. Interestingly, there was no plan to repeat the first march, but when deciding what to do with the leftover funds, someone suggested hosting a march the next year," New said. "Since then, the march has been a key contribution to the pro-life cause."

Gray is survived by three nieces and one nephew, all of whom live in Texas.

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