Nellie Gray, 86, the woman responsible for founding the annual March for Life, was found dead in her apartment on Monday morning. The cause of death is still under investigation.
A lawyer and economist who left a successful career to devote herself to the fight for life, Gray was a fixture at the annual March where she typically took center stage to introduce the many public figures who came to address the throngs of people who converged on the Capitol every year.
As LifeSiteNews recounts, she was an “unwitting founder” of the nation’s largest pro-life event which began in 1974, just one year after Roe v. Wade became law.
“She never expected or planned to start a March for Life,” Father Frank Pavone told LifeSite. “She would often tell me with a humorous recollection, ‘You know father, they just wanted to have a meeting, and some of us came together, and we decided to use my house for the meeting, and we thought we would have one march and that would be it. And before you know it, I was in charge of this March. And it’s not something that I wanted or anticipated, but we came together, we did it, and before we know it we had to do it a second time and one thing led to another.”
The March now draws up to half a million people who march every year, rain or shine, and in spite of the usually frigid cold of mid-January in the nation’s capital. Even in her advancing age, Nellie never missed a March.
“Every year since 1974, Nellie Gray has mobilized a diverse and energetic army for life,” Father said, and credits his experience attending the march as a teenager with confirming his decision to become a priest and devote his life to the pro-life cause. “Her own commitment to the cause never wavered. She was a tireless warrior for the unborn and her motto was ‘no exceptions.’ “
But in her own life, Gray was quite an exception. After serving as a corporal in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, she earned a bachelor’s degree in business and master’s in economics, according to a profile published in 2010 by the Catholic News Service. A convert to Catholicism, she was employed by the federal government for 28 years, working for both the State Department and the Department of Labor. During this time, she also attended Georgetown University Law School and eventually ended up practicing before the U.S. Supreme Court. It was in those hallowed halls where the decision to legalize abortion was made in 1973.
“I knew abortion was wrong, but I really didn’t pay much attention to the ruling,” she said about those early days after the landmark decision was handed down. “I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously.”
She quickly realized that it was being taken very seriously and described a “tugging at her heartstrings” to do something about it. Although she had been planning to retire and start her own practice, she decided it was time to go in a different direction and from then on devoted herself to the pro-life cause.
And then one fateful day she got a phone call from the Knights of Columbus telling her they needed a place to meet where they could discuss plans for a march.
“That place was my living room,” Gray said. “About 30 people gathered there and they asked if I could help get speakers for the event since I knew Capitol Hill well.”
She was able to do so, but was at a loss when it came to securing a master of ceremonies. “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.”
It was a job she would fill for the next 36 years.
Described as the Martin Luther King Jr. of the pro-life movement, Cardinal Sean O’Malley made a much different comparison. To him, she was more like “the Joan of Arc of the Gospel of life.”
In addition to Father Pavone and the Priests for Life, the leaders of the pro-life movement in America are lining up to pay their respects to a truly great lady of life.
“Nellie Gray, founder of the March for Life, was a shining light in my life from the first moment I heard her speak at the 1976 March for Life,” said Judie Brown of the American Life League.
“The subjects of her talk were human personhood and her hero at the time, Senator Jesse Helms, who led the fight for a personhood amendment to the Constitution from 1975 until his departure from the Senate. Nellie never wavered from principle and set a standard for every one of us in pro-life leadership. We will miss her, but we thank her for showing us the way to true, meaningful victory for every human being, born and preborn.”
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council applauded Nellie for her life of heroic service to the unborn. “Nellie will be remembered most for her passionate and ardent protection of every life, without exception,” he said. “As we approach the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the sad reality that 54 million babies have been lost to abortion in America , let us pay appropriate homage to Nellie by recommitting ourselves to do everything possible to protect and defend the unborn.”
“She was a visionary,” said Bryan Kemper, founder of Stand True Ministry and director of Youth Outreach for Priests for Life. “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. I have had the honor of working with Nellie for years and every time I March in DC in January, I know she will be watching over us and praying for us. Nellie Gray, I will miss you dearly.”
Gene Ruane, an administrator of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said an autopsy is being conducted to determine how and when Nellie died.
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