A local man turned a military career in the Marines into a small business ownership.
Oneil Gray is the owner of Gray’s Air Conditioning, Heating and Electric Service in Athens and he credited his time serving in the United States Marine Corps as a factor in becoming the owner of a business.
After graduating from high school, Gray joined the Marine Corp where he worked as an aircraft electrician.
He served in the Marines for 10 years from 1969 to 1979.
“I always wanted to join the Marines since I was a young man of 13 or 14 years old,” said Gray. “When I graduated high school on the 12th day of May in 1969, I enlisted in the Marines and started bootcamp on the 27th of May.”
During his military career, he rose in the ranks from private to sergeant major before retiring to help his son find a better education.
As an electrician for the Marines, most of the places he was stationed at were stateside, such as Parris Island, N.C., Memphis and Buford, N.C., with a few short oversees trips to Okinawa, Japan and Vietnam.
“In that time and day, if you were an electrician, they wouldn’t let you go anywhere because of all the electrical problems,” said Gray. “Mostly all I did was go from Buford, overseas and back.”
Gray also furthered his education during his time in the military, as he attended a correspondence school and then he obtained an associate’s degree from Cleveland State Community College.
He believes his electrician work in the military helped shape the idea that led him to found his business.
“Even when I was a kid in the 4-H club, I knew I wanted to be an electrician,” said Gray. “I took that interest into the military and learned how to work air conditioning at the University of Maryland along with some other trade schools.”
Now, Gray owns and operates his business as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps through the country.
He said his business has continued to maintain a good work flow during the pandemic.
His company performs services for residential and small commercial properties.
“We don’t take on any jobs that are big because we are not set up for it,” said Gray.
He stated the hardest part of the pandemic was finding new hires to help maintain the workload.
“Everybody says that there isn’t any jobs, but I can’t find anybody who would want to work,” he stated.
Outside of his job, Gray’s hobbies consist of hunting, fishing, shooting and touring the United States in his RV.
He is a member of the Riceville Church of Christ and the Sons of the American Revolution.
Gray has been married since 1964 and he said he met his wife while he was working a motor vehicle accident on Highway 411.
“We went to get traffic cones from the road department, which was where Bookout’s is now, and we noticed that she had run out of gas,” said Gray. “Two years later I married her, but when we went to the courthouse to get our marriage certificate the courthouse had burned. They eventually set up a temporary office in Athens but there was only one person there and he did not know how to turn on the electric typewriter, so I had to write my own marriage certificate.”
A protest in response to the recent killing of George Floyd was held in Athens Monday.
The protest came among a series of protests and riots across the country in the past week and McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy said this one remained peaceful.
“There is a difference between a protest and a riot,” Guy said. “Any American should support a lawful protest, it is part of our right as an American to voice our opinion and exercise our free speech.”
However, he noted that when violence breaks out, the protest loses its meaning.
“The rioting is a mistake that is in no way peaceful,” he stated. “It damages lives, it damages property and it doesn’t accomplish the goals that a protest does.”
Guy said he was happy to see how the protestors handled themselves Monday night.
“I was very proud of our young people,” expressed Guy. “We had a group of young people from a local high school that came out. They had concerns from things they have seen on the news, they have concerns for their own families, they were all different races and they wanted to exercise their right of free speech in a public place and be vocal about those things.”
According to Guy, the protest was very well organized and the people involved were very respectful.
“They were very open to anyone joining them and there was nothing offensive or vulgar,” he explained. “I participated along with them and they were kind enough to let me do that. These are things that they are standing up for that I believe in. They wanted to be heard and I enjoyed hearing them and I think a lot of other people enjoyed hearing them.”
He believes the bond between law enforcement and citizens is essential in order to prevent situations from getting out of hand.
“Relationships are at the bottom of all of this,” Guy said. “When we have healthy relationships we don’t turn on each other. We can have mature conversations ... so as a law enforcement officer any time that you can step over that line and maintain a relationship, I think any police chief, any sheriff and any officer should do that. So many times we are able to do that and it maintains relationships and I think that happens more often than not and I think it is what keeps our nation strong.”
He stated that a lot of communities, like the one in McMinn, have established relationships between citizen and law enforcement that they can continue to “build on and make better.”
“I think in grassroots America that is probably true in most places,” he noted. “All of the problems aren’t solved, all concerns aren’t answered but the relationships are there and as long as they are there we can continue to sit down and talk to make each others’ lives better.”
According to Guy, the organizer of the protest stated they planned to perform a prayer on Wednesday along with a community event that is currently being planned out for next week.
“We don’t always have to agree with each other, we don’t always even have to understand each other, all that we need to understand is that people are hurting ... the point is to recognize and accept the fact that people are hurting or frustrated or angry for many different reasons and just accept that and listen to people,” Guy said. “There are so many issues that people are dealing with and have been dealing with from simple personal issues to long standing issues in communities and in our nation and those issues affect different people in different ways. What is important is that we recognize that the issues do affect people, so be more inclined to listen and less inclined to speak. Racism, marginalization and the value of all citizens are things we need to continue to talk about as a community.”
Athens Police Chief Cliff Couch has also been contacted for comment and they will be included in a future edition of The DPA.
The statewide NAACP has also released a statement about the killing of Floyd and the protests taking place across the country.
“The murder of George Floyd by police is an unspeakable tragedy,” the statement read. “The arrest of the officer, Derek Chauvin, is not enough. There are three other officers who are just as complicit in killing Mr. Floyd. We want them all charged for their role in this inexcusable death.”
The NAACP also noted that the emotions of protestors have been building for some time.
“The uprisings taking place in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Kentucky, Los Angeles, Nashville and other locations across this country are a result of the anger, fear, sadness and distrust that have manifested for years throughout our community,” the statement read. “Enough is enough. We are done dying.”
The statement also encouraged people to take action responsibly moving forward.
“We must keep our focus on redressing the systemic racism against our community that led to this tragedy,” it read. “As we continue to push forward for change, we must protest peacefully, demand persistently and fight politically. But most of all, we must vote in November.”
As protests and riots stretch across the country, the City of Athens has announced an attempt to bring people together.
On Thursday, June 11, the city will host the Conversation on Race and Community Event at 5 p.m. at Cook Park.
“Americans are mourning. Americans are angry. Americans are anxious. This too, describes Athenians,” stated a news release about the event. “The events of this past week, the death of Mr. (George) Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic have everyone experiencing emotional discontent. The Friendly City sees you and hears you. We are in this one world together. All we have is each other.”
The release also stressed the importance of law enforcement during this period.
“This is a very difficult time in the world and in our community,” it read. “The City of Athens supports and cultivates professionalism in law enforcement, we uphold the rule of law, but equally as important, we promote liberty for all people. All people have value and all people have a voice. The City of Athens and the Athens Police Department protect all people.”
The release continued that hearing and considering everyone’s view of the world is vital.
“While the Friendly City honors the sacred ideals of our citizens, it is important that we are respectful of all viewpoints. The city is mindful of the diverse viewpoints that exist in our community and how those individual viewpoints intersect each other and make our community stronger,” the release stated. “As we move forward, together, the Friendly City’s emphasis remains on the core values of professionalism and respect for all people to serve as our guide during good times and difficult times alike.”
That sentiment was echoed by City Manager C. Seth Sumner.
“The strength of our community lies in our closeness to one another,” he said. “The spirit of the Friendly City is a spirit of love and understanding, but we need to see each other face to face and hear each other so that we can work together to prevent further tragedies from occurring.”
The release noted that “all voices that wish to be heard about how our community comes together better in the wake of this past week’s tragic events are asked to peacefully assemble at Cook Park on June 11 at 5 p.m. for a Conversation on Race and Community.”
“Every citizen has the right to be heard and right now, I know, people are wanting to be heard in our community. I’ve spoken with people all over Athens that need a place to be seen and heard,” Athens Mayor Chuck Burris said. “Through a group of engaged citizens, we are creating that safe space where our community can come together and have the conversations that need to happen right now.”
“I want every resident of Athens to feel comfortable and safe raising their family here,” Athens Police Chief Cliff Couch added. “It’s my hope that this horrific tragedy in Minneapolis can serve as a catalyst for continued communication and understanding in our own community.”
A state grant program is expected to help McMinn County navigate the financial uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 economic shutdown.
McMinn County will receive $913,214 through Gov. Bill Lee’s Local Government Support Grant program. This $200 million program provides cities and counties throughout Tennessee with a portion of the grant funding with no local matching dollars required.
At a recent meeting of the McMinn County Commission’s Budget Committee, County Mayor John Gentry said the grant funding will give the county “hopefully, a little relief.”
The program was originally designed to allocate $100 million, but that amount doubled prior to the end of the Tennessee General Assembly session to expand funding for COVID-19 response.
“Times got worse and they increased it to $200 million,” explained Gentry.
“They knew the challenge that local governments were going through.”
Each county is guaranteed at least $500,000 and each city is guaranteed at least $30,000. The maximum funding amount each governing agency may apply for is based on its population.
“There are stipulations on that money as far as what it can be used for,” said Gentry.
The grant provides funding for information technology hardware upgrades, capital maintenance, utility system upgrades, road projects, public safety and COVID-19 response.
Grant applications are due in the summer, but the money can be applied retroactively to costs incurred since March 1.
“If we have to move some (money) around, we can use that (grant) money to pay for things that we were going to pay for out of capital funds,” said Gentry.
Among the items discussed that this grant could help fund are new police cars, repairs to the McMinn County Courthouse steps and new fire equipment.
“There’s going to be a release valve with that money where we can take some pressure off this year’s budget on those one-time expenses,” said Gentry.
The county has been keeping a tally of eligible expenses related to COVID-19 safety upgrades with the intent of recouping those costs through the grant program.