Charles Montgomery Gray, legal history scholar, 1928-2011

Charles Montgomery Gray, a leading scholar of legal history and a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, died Friday, April 22 at the University’s Bernard Mitchell Hospital. He was 82.

He was the author of the books, Copyhold, Equity and the Common Law; History of the Common Law, Hugh Latimer and the Sixteenth Century; and Renaissance and Reformation England. He also had written numerous articles about legal history and Volumes I, II, III and IV of Jurisdiction in Early Modern English Law.

He was the husband of Hanna H. Gray, president emeritus of the University, who is the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor in History Emeritus. The Grays were married in 1954 after meeting in a seminar at Harvard University.

Services will be held at 4 p.m. Monday, May 2 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. To accommodate the services, parking will be prohibited along the north side of 59th Street and the west side of Woodlawn Avenue, immediately adjacent to the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel grounds.

“Charles is already sorely missed,” said Neil Harris, the Preston and Sterling Morton Professor Emeritus in History, who further described Gray as “a major presence” in the life of the University as well as “an extraordinary person — learned, individualistic, gracious, cordial and a wonderful friend.”

Harris also marveled at the range of Gray’s talents. “In addition to his impressive legal and historical scholarship, he was an accomplished painter, an evocative poet and at home in a number of languages, some of which were learned not long ago. He wore these distinctions with modesty,” Harris said.

Kathleen Neils Conzen, the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor in American History, praised Gray as “a wonderfully generous departmental colleague and always a voice of reason and civility in departmental discussions.”

“He offered an imaginative range of courses in medieval British history, history of law and history of legal theory,” Conzen said, “but it was his role as ‘Western Civ. Teacher’ that he once described as the persona ‘that has almost become the center of my life.’”

Gray was named professor in history in 1978 after serving on the faculty at Yale University from 1974 to 1978 and previously at UChicago from 1960 to 1972. He also served as master of the New Collegiate Division and associate dean of the College.

He was a Guggenheim fellow from 1965 to 1966, and he also held fellowships with the American Council of Learned Societies and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He and Mrs. Gray served as co-editors of the Journal of Modern History for five years.

In addition to being a distinguished researcher, he was also an outstanding teacher. In 1992, he received the University’s top award for undergraduate teaching, the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award.

He taught courses in Western civilization, medieval and early-modern English history, and the history of English and European law, jurisprudence, and political theory.  He also taught courses in “Fundamentals: Issues and Texts,” a program in the College devoted to examination of major Western and non-Western texts.

“I enjoy the process of teaching,” Gray said in an interview with the University of Chicago Chronicle. “In teaching you are forced to think about how you’re going to explain something to your students. You have to make something comprehensible to yourself and then explain it to them.

“I feel satisfied in teaching when the students and I have looked at a text, come as close to it as we can and discussed it exhaustively,” he added.

Students who recommended Gray for the Quantrell honor spoke of his joy in teaching, as well as his ability to explain the issues involved in their classes.

"He definitely glows from his eternal enjoyment of teaching, and in turn, this inspires his students to learn. I never leave his classes without serious reflection on my own ideas and the ideas that are greater than myself,” one of the students wrote.

Gray was born Nov. 23, 1928, in Champaign, Ill. He received a BA summa cum laude from Harvard in 1949, was a junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows and received his PhD from Harvard in 1956. He was a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1956 to 1960.

In addition to his wife, Gray is survived by his sister, Nancy Gray Sherrill of Wichita Falls, Texas, and several nieces and nephews.

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