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Dr. James H. Gray was born in Whitemouth, Manitoba in 1906 and spent his childhood years in Winnipeg. A high-school dropout, he began working as an office boy at the Winnipeg Grain Exchange when he was 16. By 1930, he was the manager of a Lethbridge stockbroker’s office, but lost his job when the stock market crashed and spent the next few years on relief.
It was during this period that he started writing. By 1935, he had landed a job as a reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press, became an editorial writer, and was appointed Ottawa correspondent for the newspaper in 1946. A disagreement with his editor on how best to market the prairie wheat crop prompted his departure from the newspaper and he returned to the West.
Dr. Gray became a freelance correspondent for a string of eastern newspapers and became editor of the Calgary-based Farm and Ranch Review, and later of the Western Oil Examiner.
From 1958 to 1964, he was manager of public relations for Home Oil, after which he retired permanently in order to write.
In his first book, The Winter Years, published in 1966, Dr. Gray wrote of the Depression in Western Canada. The book was an instant success and established the beginning of a market for social history based on the western experience. A second book, a series of childhood recollections called The Boy From Winnipeg, was followed by Men Against the Desert, which chronicled the Prairie farmer’s struggle to overcome wind and drought during the Depression. His book records the triumph of the farmers and scientists who painstakingly discovered how to farm the drylands successfully.
These first three books were published within three years and heralded a subsequent surge of books on Western Canada, and publishers were convinced for the first time of the market for western Canadian history.
In the early 1970s, Dr. Gray wrote Red Lights on the Prairies, a history of prostitution in the early years; Booze, an exploration of the myths and realities of the decade of prohibition on the Prairies; The Roar of the Twenties; Troublemaker (an autobiography); Boomtime and Bacchanalia Revisited (1982).
A Brand of its Own: A History of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede and Talk to My Lawyer, in the mid 1980′s followed.
Dr. Gray not only pioneered the publishing of western Canadian social history, but is largely responsible for its more prominent inclusion in Alberta school curriculums. In the early 1980s, he won the support of former Premier Peter Lougheed, who also felt western history was being neglected, and was one of the founders of the $6 million Alberta Heritage Resources Education Project. The project funded the publication of 35 western Canadian histories, 11 anthologies, nine additional histories and 12 readers on specially commissioned themes.
These books were distributed to every school library in Alberta, senior citizens’ homes and other institutions.
Dr. Gray sponsored Gold Medal Awards for outstanding achievement in the study of western Canadian history at six western Universities and contributed privately to the University of Calgary History Department.
His books garnered numerous awards, including the 1967 Canadian Historical Society Award, the 1968 and 1975 Alberta Historical Society Awards, the 1967 Margaret McWilliams Medal and the 1971 University of British Columbia Silver Medal.
Dr. Gray received honorary doctorates from the University of Calgary, the University of Brandon and the University of Manitoba.