Dick Gray, Freshwater founder, was passionate advocate for water


Dick Gray
Dick Gray

Dick Gray, a passionate and powerful advocate for protecting water who led the formation of the Freshwater Society, died Wednesday, March 5.

He was 95 years old and remained active in the Society as a board member until his death.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in petroleum geology and engineering from the University of Minnesota, served as a naval officer in World War II and founded a manufacturing company, Zero-Max Industries. He later was a board member and president of the IDS Mutual Fund Group.

Mr. Gray lived on Lake Minnetonka and Minnehaha Creek. His fascination with water and his commitment to preserving it led him to regularly conduct water quality tests in a laboratory he had set up in his home.

One winter, while drilling a hole in the lake’s ice, he discovered a red algal bloom. Unable to find a resource to accurately identify the algae, he and others – notably the late Hilbert Hill and Richard Caldecott – set out to raise private funding for research on fresh water.

With the encouragement of former University of Minnesota President Malcolm Moos, they established a non-profit foundation in 1968 and eventually raised $4 million, the equivalent of nearly $27 million in today’s dollars. They built a state-of-the-art research lab at Navarre on the shore of Lake Minnetonka and then donated the lab to the university.

Read about the founding of Freshwater and the building of the lab in Mr.  Gray’s own words in a 2010 column he wrote.

For 20 years, the Gray Freshwater Biological Institute conducted research, published reports for water managers and environmental policy makers and trained more than 45 doctoral students.

In the mid-1990s, the university consolidated its operations, moved its water research activities to its Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses and returned the laboratory to the non-profit Freshwater Society.

Richard Gray
Dick Gray at the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories.

Through the years,   Mr. Gray continued to devote much of his time to writing about water and science. He liked nothing better than to commit himself to understanding a complex scientific concept and then explaining it to non-scientists in regular columns he wrote for the Sun Newspapers and later for the Freshwater newsletter.

Those columns are collected in two books:  Passwords for All Seasons, publishes in 1973, and Open Season, published in 1985.

In a forward to first book, Sigurd Olson wrote: “In Passwords, Dick Gray explains things you may have forgotten you wondered about – like rainbows, thunderstorms, fireflies,  and barometric pressure.”

In the late 1970s, Mr. Gray collaborated with meteorologist Bruce Watson and naturalist Jim Gilbert to produce the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendar, which continues to be a statewide favorite.

Mr. Gray received the University of Minnesota’s Outstanding Achievement Award for Meritorious Service to the University and the Community, he was recognized by the Minnesota Academy of Sciences for his contributions to science, and he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Montana State University.

In 2006, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared April 24 as Dick Gray Day in Minnesota in recognition of his work on behalf of clean water.

Steve Woods, the Freshwater Society’s new executive director, sat down with Mr. Gray in January to talk about the Society, past and present.

“I had a chance to just soak up history as Dick and Dr. Caldecott –another founder—told me about how things unfolded at the start,” Woods said. “What was striking to me was that both seemed far more interested in the present than the past.

“Ninety percent of the discussion was about the future and Mr. Gray’s  interest in the phenomenon of fracking. His was truly a lively mind, always looking for answers and linkages.”




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Dick Gray’s obituary from the StarTribune.

Read about the founding of Freshwater in Mr.  Gray’s own words in a 2010 column he wrote.

Read a 1979 Minnesota Conservation Volunteer article on the Freshwater Biological Institute.

Mr. Gray’s family has invited friends and colleagues to make memorials in his name to the Freshwater Society.

[button link=”http://freshwater.org/memorials-to-dick-gray/” color=”aqua”]Memorials[/button]

There will be a celebration of Mr. Gray’s life at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 19, at the Gray Freshwater Center, 2500 Shadywood Road, Navarre.


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Robert Elde

Dick Gray was a remarkable force in our community. His ethos for the natural world elevated “water” from a mundane, ordinary commodity to “freshwater” – a term that instantly teaches.

Dick taught us that human activity threatens our waters. His vision for addressing these threats was evidence-based:  Science is the pathway to diagnosing the causes that impair water; science must be the basis for refurbishing impaired waters.

Dick implemented his vision with his own resources and mobilized the resources of many others. This was realized with the creation of the Gray Freshwater Biological Institute, a stunning facility on Lake Minnetonka built in the 1970s for use by the University of Minnesota. Its state of the art laboratories and founding staff succeeded in recruiting the world’s leading scientists, who together addressed the crucial issues regarding freshwater. Over time, the Institute evolved into the Freshwater Society, which today provides leadership on policy and outreach on behalf of the waters of Minnesota and beyond.

Dick was a force, a friendly and engaging force that brought our waters to the center stage of the larger conversation on “the nature of value, and the value of nature.”

He was a mentor to me, a dear friend, a witty conversationalist and on a mission. He will be sorely missed.

Dick’s ideas that led to the GFBI were consolidated through conversations at the university’s Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories with his close colleague, Dick Caldecott, who then was dean of the College of Biological Sciences.

One of our laboratories at Itasca is named in honor of Dick: the “Gray Freshwater Lakeside Laboratory.”

Robert Elde
Dean, University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences





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Jack Pichotta
Jack Pichotta

I first met Dick Gray in 1969, when, as a high school teacher in Cloquet, my request to the school administration to schedule a full week of environmental education for Cloquet High School during April of 1970 was approved. Coincidently, our week occurred during the same month as the first Earth Day, and our program, called Students Concerned About a Ravaged Environment (SCARE), was recognized as one of the nation’s first Earth Day programs.

All regular classes were replaced with presentations by highly qualified persons on dozens of topics ranging from air pollution to population concerns.

Mr. Gray was one of the first persons I asked to come and present during that week. As President of the Freshwater Biological Research Foundation his topic was Fresh Water Pollution.

The following year I authored a grant proposal to open the then-closed Isabella Job Corps Camp as an “Environmental Learning Center.”  A number of the SCARE presenters, including Dick Gray, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Congressman John Blatnik and former Governor Elmer Andersen provided essential support during the early days of the ELC at Isabella.  Others of the SCARE presenters also provided essential support, but none for as long as Dick Gray.

Dick Gray was my mentor  and advisor beginning in 1969 until 2000 and a friend from then until now.  Whenever I needed advice or council, Mr. Gray was always there for me. He was the very first person from whom I sought fund-raising advice after moving to Isabella.  Other trustees provided similar support, but none for as long as Dick Gray.

Dick was never without big-picture suggestions and ideas.  When our 3-year interest and efforts to relocate to camp Tettegouche ended due to efforts by the Nature Conservancy and the DNR to create Tettegouche State Park, Mr. Gray proposed, to the DNR Commissioner and the President of TNC, that the ELC become a part of a new park dedicated to environmental education. His numerous suggestions frequently involved collaborative efforts with other organizations and were of similar scope.

My children never met Dick Gray, but they knew him well.  All during the ‘70’s and ‘80’s most of the discussion in our home involved the ELC, and more often than not, Dick Gray was key to the discussion.

While I’m certain that his involvement with others was equal to the attention he gave to Wolf Ridge and me, I can’t help but believe that we received special treatment from Dick Gray, and for that I’m forever thankful.

Jack Pichotta
Founder, Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center


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