Dave Gray named as Citizen of the Year

By Carol Walker

HAPPY IN HILL CITY — Mayor Dave Gray is a great cheerleader for Hill City, appearing at most of the events in town. Here he rides in the back of a car driven by Councilman Jason Gillaspie, and joining the mayor are Gillaspie's sons, Jeff Gillaspie, left, and Jeremy Gillaspie. [PN File Photo]


Calm, unruffled, easy-going and patient are common qualities attributed to Dave Gray, the Hill City Prevailer’s Citizen of the Year, by friends and associates. That demeanor has carried him through his service in the Army National Guard and employment with South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks.

That easy-going nature should not be mistaken for a lack of drive. Many have described his unbounded passion for his family, his church, youth in the community, the great outdoors and the affairs of the city of Hill City.

Dennis Krull got to know Gray when they were both involved with the Hill City Youth Center, a small building located on the corner of the elementary school playground. Krull said Gray has always been an advocate for kids, and he wanted to see that the city had a bigger facility to serve the needs of the youth of Hill City.

“His demeanor may be laid back, but inwardly he would make up his mind and stick with it. It took seven or eight years to get from that small youth center to the Boys and Girls Club we have today. He would never give up. Through all the meetings and roadblocks he would say, ‘We’re going to make this happen’,” said Krull.

Gray, along with the support of others, eventually got the South Dakota National Guard to build the facility that is used by so many local children today. The Boys and Girls Club of the Black Hills provides quality indoor and outdoor activities for youth throughout the year.

Later, Krull said, as a city council man, Gray championed to the Heart of the Hills Economic Development Corporation, (EDC) the notion of hiring a city administrator.  He believed it would provide continuity for the city as the mayor and council members changed over time. According to Krull, not everyone was on board with the idea, but in the end, an administrator was hired. Bett McMacken, city administrator, remembers that interview in which Dave participated.

“He came in dressed in a T-shirt, khaki shorts and a cap. He had the attitude that it’s a beautiful day. He was laid back and plum happy with the world,” said McMacken.

From the youth center to the Boys and Girls Club Board and on to the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission, he served the community until he was elected to the city council. When Dan Maxfield resigned as the Hill City mayor in 2011, Gray finished his term and has continued to serve in that capacity to this day. John Johnson was elected to the city council 14 years ago and he said Gray was already on the council by then.

“I’ve known Dave since right after the flood and I’ve always respected him. We arm wrestle sometimes over city issues, but when we walk out the door, it’s all over. He’s put in a lot of time with the city,” said Johnson.

The “putting in time” Johnson speaks of is not only warming a seat, but actively participating in local government. It has been more than the meetings, but also attendance at so many community events that are expected of a mayor.

“As mayor, he has really kept in touch with community events, the Wine, Brew and BBQ, the parades. You see him there and he’s smiling ear to ear. He’s a great cheerleader for the community. He is sold on the idea of Hill city,” said McMacken.

According to McMacken, Gray used to refer to Hill City as the best-kept secret, but in recent years he has said, “Well, the secret is out.”

When he and his wife, Julie, settled in Hill City, they bought an old Victorian house on Pine St, high on a hill overlooking the town, and determined to remodel one room a year, putting plenty of blood, sweat and tears into the project. This house and yard became not only a show piece for Hill City, but also a home for the couple and their three children, Jenny, Josh and Megan. His love for his own children fueled his enthusiasm for making Hill City a better place for youth.

“When it comes to his kids and grandkids, they can do no wrong,” said Julie.

An integral part of family life has been involvement with St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, where he also serves people of the community.

“He likes to be outdoors. He has helped with maintenance at the church, and during the winter months, plows snow in the parking lot. He loves doing it, so much so that he goes on to plow people’s driveways,” said Julie.

When Rollie Noem was the director for Custer State Park, he was involved with outreach to Black Hills communities, and Gray was a Conservation Officer (C.O.) with GFP. It was during that time the two became acquainted. After retirement brought a move to Hill City for Noem, he and Gray have attended the same church, and their bond of friendship has become stronger.

“One day last summer, I happened to drive by his house and noticed him sitting on his porch swing, and I rolled down my window and made a comment something like, “Is that all the mayor has to do?” He invited me to come on up and have a glass of iced tea,” said Noem.

The duo sat for an hour and a half, reminiscing about their GFP days. Though busy with city affairs, family and time in the woods, Noem and many others commented that he always has time for people.

“He is always so helpful, especially after Art died. If I need anything in the world, he is always there to help. He is the most wonderful, caring neighbor,” said Sue Anderson, who lives next door.

From the time he was a young boy, Gray has spent as much time as possible outdoors, which led naturally to a job as a C.O. at age 19, one of the two youngest to serve in South Dakota. He was involved with such things as watching for illegal hunting, public safety, public relations, and firearms.

“He has loved every minute of his job, checking hunters, fishermen, counting animals, monitoring water resources,” said Julie.

Owen Meadows, now retired as Gray is, knows well what the job entails as he became a C.O. about the same time, serving in the Hot Springs district. They spent plenty of time in the woods together checking for illegal hunting.

“We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in the same outfit or open window to open window, waiting for potential poachers of mostly elk and deer. He had his black German Shepherd, Boob, with him,” said Meadows.

If Meadows worked alone and needed help with poachers, no matter what time of day or night, he said, if he called state radio, it never failed. Dave would come and help. When they did nab someone for poaching, Meadows was impressed with how Gray treated them.

“There are always a couple ways to treat the public. You could be ornery or friendly. Dave handled them in a friendly but exacting way, patiently explaining why they were getting a citation,” said Meadows.

One year, Gray was presented with the Shikar Safari, the GFP award for outstanding service. Only one of these awards is given to a person each year for the entire state.

Gray’s knowledge and love for hunting allowed him to not only go on hunting excursions himself, but share his expertise with others. He often guides other hunters in their pursuit of wild game both in South Dakota and outside the state.

The adventures of the outdoors naturally spilled over into family life. His daughter Jenny said when they hiked, he always wanted to know what was over the next hill, and Julie said they always had to check for animal scat as they walked.

The family was encouraged (or made) to try such delicacies as raccoon, beaver, bear, mountain lion, elk, deer, partridge, quail, dove, pheasant, turkey or rattlesnake.

“If I would bring friends home from school, and there was meat on the counter, I would tell them, ‘It could be dinner or it could be evidence.’,” said Megan.

He once made sweet and sour raccoon for a church function and people didn’t have a clue. Julie said the bishop ate it, and still to this day, doesn’t know it was raccoon.

In recent years after retirement, perhaps doing penance for all the times he fed his family wild game, he began to do a little baking.

“He makes really good caramel rolls and cookies. He is the best pie maker,” said Megan.

He approached family vacations with the same zeal he did every other area of his life. They didn’t let any grass grow under their feet when they took a trip.

“We would be on the go the whole time we were on vacation. It might have been fun, just once, to stay in one spot and relax,” said Megan.

Now there is another generation, and there are grandchildren in the picture, three in Rapid City and one in Colorado Springs that Dave loves to spend time with.

“He sees the ones in Rapid City about once a week, and the others about once a month, and if he doesn’t see them, he goes through withdrawal,” said Julie.

It was Dave’s energy and sense of wonder that attracted Julie to Dave in the first place. She said he was interesting because he was always looking for adventures. He wanted to go places and do stuff, she said.

Another avenue of service to the state and the country that makes him deserving of Citizen of the Year is his commitment to the South Dakota Army National Guard. Signing up after high school, he and his brother Charlie followed in the footsteps of their grandfathers and father and uncles who all were connected with the military. Two of Dave’s uncles gave the ultimate sacrifice, losing their lives in World War II.

In 1990-91 Gray was sent to the Gulf War, Desert Storm, at a time when communication was a little slim. They might get to call their families once every two weeks, sometimes even in the middle of the night. They couldn’t talk too long because there was always a line-up of people waiting to do the same thing.

“During that time we had an old coal-fired furnace that we had to pull the clinkers out of. We were able to get electric heat installed, but the electricity went out, and we had no power for several days. Eventually, we got a propane furnace,” said Julie.

Gray was proud to serve in Desert Storm, but he was glad to get back home to his family. Julie said he kissed the ground when he arrived back in the United States.

From the time he was very young when he and his brother shared a BB gun, Gray has had an interest in guns. It was a natural thing for him to become involved in competitive marksmanship in the National Guard. He approached the sport with a passion, as he did everything else. He achieved the level of “distinguished” in both rifle and pistol, quite unusual, according to his brother Charlie. His love for shooting eventually qualified him for the International Army Shooting Team, which took him to such faraway places as Canada, England, South Africa and Australia. In addition, he participated in the South Dakota Army National Guard Biathlon, which combines both shooting and cross-country skiing.

His son Josh followed in his footsteps in joining the Army National Guard. As with his dad, this involved deployment to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Josh, as well as Charlie’s son and a nephew of Charlie and Dave all took part in the conflict in Iraq.

After the children were grown, the couple traveled to Ireland, Scotland, Poland, Australia, New Zealand and have taken a Mediterranean cruise, but with all that travel, both Dave and Julie would agree, there is no place like home — Hill City — which he has served in so many ways.

“I’m really proud of him. He likes people a lot, and one of the reasons he does things is so he can get to know people. He has the overall perspective of wanting to make Hill City, the state and the country a better place to live,” said Julie.

Though now engaged in one of life’s biggest challenges, cancer, he is surrounded by his family, the people he loves more than anything, friends who care, countless individuals who pray and myriad memories from his service to Hill City, South Dakota, and the United States of America. Dave Gray is an outstanding recipient of the Hill City Prevailer’s Citizen of the Year.