Seeing his father and older brother get up at 5 in the morning to work construction convinced C. Vernon Gray he better learn to do something else.
What he learned was survival politics. No matter how disagreeable or embarrassing the situation, the 50-year-old County Council member always seems to escape. But not without first becoming the center of attention.
After serving three consecutive terms as County Council chairman from 1985 through 1987, Gray's star grew dim in the eyes of many supporters of County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo.
Indeed, many thought him a renegade opposed to Bobo's programs. Gray says it was no such thing. He was merely exercising the proper "check and balance role" of any legislator toward an executive.
His estrangement with the administration, real or imagined, was so great that late last year some Bobo people sought to woo a candidate to oppose him in the primary.
Not only did that race not materialize, but the Republicans refused to run anyone against him either. Gray was just "too strong," Carol Arscott, chair of the local Republican Central Committee, said at the time.
So Gray ran unopposed.
Ran is the operative word.
He waged his campaign as though he were in the fight of his life, bringing in Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia to stump for him and raising and spending more money than any other council candidate.
Tomorrow night, Gray is again slated to become chairman of the County Council. Shane Pendergrass, who has served two years as chairman, does not have the votes to be re-elected to the position. Democrat Paul Farragut said he is not interested in the position this year because of increased commitments at work.
In the past, the council has provided a united front when nominating and electing chairmen and vice chairmen for the council and the Zoning Board and Liquor Board, the council's other two functions. Only one person was nominated for each post and that person was elected. There were never any runoffs. Monday, there might be.
Republican Darrel Drown, a newcomer who will join incumbents Gray, Pendergrass, Farragut and fellow Republican Charles Feaga on the council, insists Gray's election is by no means a foregone conclusion.
"I'm nominating Charles (Feaga) and I'm going to vote for him," Drown said. "Charlie's earned it -- the Republicans have earned it. The county is ready for a change."
What Feaga knows, of course, is that no Democrat will vote for a Republican as chairman of the council -- at least not now. He, on the other hand, as the lone Republican on the council, voted with Democrats in the past and plans to do so again Monday night, assuring Gray's election, council sources said. Feaga may not even vote for himself, but choose instead to simply thank Drown for the "honor" of being nominated before switching to Gray.
Another escape, another limelight -- Gray getting off the hook with flair and finesse -- or as one reporter wrote, much to Gray's displeasure --garishness.
Whether he seeks it or is pushed into it, the glare of the klieg lights is always upon him. It was true in high school when Gray was quarterback of the football team, captain of the basketball team and pitcher on a summer league baseball team in which he "played with and against grown men." And it is true today.
Born one of three brothers in Sunderland, Calvert County, his father was a state roads construction worker who in 43 years never earned more than $5 an hour, says Gray.
After high school, Gray was given a Maryland senatorial scholarship to Morgan State University. He earned a degree in political science, then headed for Atlanta University, where he got his master's.
After a teaching stint at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., where he met his wife, Sandra, the couple moved to Amherst, Mass., where Gray earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Massachusetts.
He later returned to Morgan State to chair the political science department -- a post he held until this year.
Gray still teaches 12 hours a semester at Morgan. Politics is not just his hobby, it's his life's blood. So much so in fact that when he was asked by former Gov. Harry Hughes to serve on the state reapportionment committee in 1982, Gray was publicly accused of attempting to create a safe district for himself. Called to Annapolis, he assured Hughes that he would not be running for state office.
But he did run for and win an at-large seat on the Howard County Council, the first black candidate ever to do so. Four years later, when council members were elected from districts rather than at large, Gray moved to an area where he felt he stood a better chance of getting elected.
His opponents cried foul, but Gray won anyway.
Other opponents said Gray's status as a state employee -- his teaching position at Morgan State -- violated the county charter and made him ineligible to serve on the council. A legal opinion said otherwise.