The big white boxes are stacked three deep in C. Vernon Gray's now-cluttered Long Reach, Columbia home office, labeled to denote the categories of things left from his two-decadelong career as a Howard County councilman.
Wooden plaques and certificates are atop a photo box, which sits next to tote bags, among wall plaques, papers, files and disconnected computers that litter the sunny, book-lined room.
A political pioneer who blazed a trail for African-Americans in this mostly white suburb, Gray, a Democrat, is suddenly without the anchor of public office that kept him in the limelight he relished for so long.
Despite the $53,000 he and his wife, Sandra Tice Gray, spent on his campaign for the District 13 state Senate seat, he lost to Republican Sandra B. Schrader by about 800 votes, although his polls showed him ahead until Election Day, he said.
"It all came down to turnout," he said, adding that the combination of the Court of Appeals-ordered redistricting and the strength of Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s candidacy brought out more Schrader voters than he could match.
"I wasn't shocked. I was surprised," he said.
Del. Frank S. Turner, one of Gray's closest political allies, said, "Whenever you lose, you always take it personally. After that initial period passes you become more reflective. You realize life goes on," Turner said.
As for the $53,000, "That's life. I've been blessed," he said, to have accomplished more than he could ever have envisioned growing up in Jim Crow segregation on his grandfather's Calvert County farm.
Guarding his emotions was something he learned early in rural Southern Maryland, where blacks were barred from movies and restaurants, he said.
"You move on, deal with the positives," he said - something he is trying to do now.
Gray, a proud man who, in his words was "not afraid of putting my head above the [political] radar," seemed upbeat, even jovial at times yesterday.
Although he said he won't miss the night meetings he attended, his disclaimer might not be quite as heartfelt as Mary C. Lorsung's, a Democrat who retired from the council.
"First of all, I don't miss it," she said, noting she has been too busy with family matters since leaving office Dec. 2 to notice the change.
Those who know him say Gray isn't ready to retire. He talks about networking to make a difference, and all the issues he has worked on during the years - anti-smoking bills, getting state funds to buy the 300-acre Smith farm, pushing for affordable housing and school equity, plus helping people with their problems.
"He's a driven person. He is incredibly driven. He just has to be moving and doing something every minute," said Barbara Russell, a County Council employee who worked closely with him for years.
Gray said he had done all he could as a councilman, so he isn't sad about leaving that office. However, that doesn't mean he sees his political career as being finished at age 63. He could run for state Senate again in 2006, he said.
"This [a state Senate seat] was a perfect position for me. I would not be a bystander," he said.
He has to deal with not being a public official.
"You do miss the hubbub and being part of the equation. That can be a real letdown," said Darrell E. Drown, a Republican and former council member who sometimes clashed with Gray. "If anybody relishes it, Vernon Gray relishes it," Drown said of political life.
David A. Rakes, a friend and supporter of Gray's, won his former east Columbia County Council seat and is the only black council member. Because Howard County has adopted a three-term limit for council members, no one will ever hold office as long as Gray did - five terms.
As Rakes and others noted, since losing the election Gray has traveled to Korea and to a seminar in Huntsville, Ala., spoken to students at Oakland Mills High School, and read five books while teaching a full course load at Morgan State University.
"This is the guy's life. I think [losing] hurt him personally and he was a little disappointed," Rakes said, although it can be hard to tell.
"Vernon keeps his own counsel. He doesn't show a lot of his personal feelings," Rakes said.
"You've got to make an effort to understand Vernon," said former Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a Republican, who said that when he joined the council as the only GOP member, Gray invited him to his home, ordered in dinner, and spent four hours showing him the ins and outs of county budgets.
"You've got to know Vernon to admire his ability," said Feaga, who shares a farm background with Gray. "Vernon does his homework."
Unlike Democrat Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who said that even a year after losing her re-election bid for county executive in 1990, "people would still talk to me like I had a terminal illness," Gray said he isn't bothered if fewer people call him now that he is a private citizen. He calls them - frequently.
And he has lots of photos of himself with foreign, national and state leaders. He relishes a memory of a brief 1999 meeting with President Bill Clinton, who remembered his name and personal things about him although Gray was with a group of 50 local officials from the National Association of Counties he led.
Still, Bobo and others said, losing has its benefits.
"It has been very largely positive. I spent much too much time working. I'm a much more peaceful person now," Bobo said. "My daughter says it's the best thing that ever happened to me and the family."
Drown, too, said he thought a respite would help Gray.
"It gives him four years to be a normal person. This gives him a chance to step back, reassess, and he'll come back stronger than ever," Drown said.