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Frank R. Gray

Frank R. Gray in the 1890sFrank R. Gray in the 1890s.

Homestead in Barry Township, Pike County, IllinoisHomestead in Barry Township, Pike County, Illinois.

Dollar Bank depositor Frank Ross Gray (1856-1924) was a deaf optician who worked for the Brashear Company in Pittsburgh. Headed by celebrated astronomer Dr. John A. Brashear, the firm specialized in making optical parts for scientific instruments like telescopes. Frank Gray spent nearly forty years at the Brashear Optical Company and became one of the most skilled lens grinders in the country.

Early Life

Frank R. Gray was born in the small rural town of Barry, Illinois. His father, Burton T. Gray, a carpenter and Mexican War veteran, was a native of New York who had come to Pike County, Illinois as a child in 1830 with his parents, Daniel H. and Naomi Gray. At that time, Barry Township was still a rough frontier, “while such a thing as a carriage or buggy was unknown,” according to an 1880 history of the county. Husbands walked to church on foot, their wives riding horses beside them and carrying children who were too young to walk. The pioneers wore homespun clothes and sustained themselves by hunting and farming.

From an uncle, Burton Gray learned carpentry, a practical skill in a community dedicated to building and growing. After his return from the Mexican War, Gray married Sophronia Babcock in 1850. Burton Gray built his own house in Barry, and the couple had four children. Only two, Frank and his older sister Ellen, survived to adulthood. Sophronia Gray died in August 1859 when Frank was just three years old. Burton Gray remarried the following year, to Maria Brown.

Frank Gray lost his hearing after a severe bout of mumps and measles at age seven. Five years later, Burton Gray enrolled his son in the Illinois School for the Deaf, founded in 1839 in Jacksonville, Illinois. Frank Gray proved an excellent student, devoted to reading, languages and scholarship. He graduated valedictorian of his class in 1873 and went on to attend the National Deaf-Mute College (Gallaudet University) in Washington, D.C., from which he graduated in 1878.

Brashear Optical CompanyBrashear Optical Company. Courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Dr. John A. BrashearDr. John A. Brashear. Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Archives.

Craftsman at Brashear Optical Company, 1914Craftsman, quite possibly Frank Gray, at Brashear Optical Company, May 1914. Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Archives.

Brashear Optical Company

Gray went into teaching and then spent several years in the sheep-farming business in Texas and Kansas. Around 1885, he sold his interests and accepted a position at the Brashear Optical Company in Pittsburgh.

It is unclear how Gray came to the attention of the Pittsburgh firm, but Gray’s intellectual aptitude, mechanical skills and mastery of several foreign languages proved to be an asset to his new employer. The Brashear Company had a worldwide reputation as a manufacturer of superior scientific optical products, so they received orders from observatories in many foreign countries. Frank Gray was often called upon to translate correspondence with these overseas institutions.

For years, Gray had an enviably short commute, boarding at various addresses on Perrysville Avenue near the Brashear Company’s optical works. In 1900, he was a lodger with Louisa Legrand Otterson, her husband John, and their family at 2032 Perrysville Avenue. In 1910, Gray boarded with Dora Legrand, Louisa Otterson’s mother, at 2026 Perrysville Avenue. Both houses were just half a block away from the Brashear Company.

Gray’s employer, Dr. Brashear, had an even shorter commute. The Brashear home was on property adjoining the factory. The family’s dining room doubled as a board room for company meetings. Nearby was the Allegheny Observatory – up through 1900, a short walk of a few hundred feet from the Brashear properties to Observatory Hill; after 1900, at Riverview Park. The Observatory’s Thaw Telescope was designed and built by the Brashear Optical Company in 1912. It was in this vibrant intellectual environment of science and wonder, married with expert craftsmanship, that Frank Gray became an amateur astronomer.

He designed and built a telescope for the students at Western Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf. He visited the school regularly and showed the students how to use the telescope, sharing with them his love of the heavens.

Gray devoted himself to advocacy for the hearing impaired. He was a charter member of the Pittsburgh Social League of the Deaf, the National Association of the Deaf, the Pennsylvania Society for the Advancement of the Deaf, and Gallaudet College Alumni, serving as an officer in three of those associations. He knew American Sign Language and used speech to communicate with his colleagues at the Brashear Optical Company.

At the end of his life, Gray suffered from tuberculosis, for which he was hospitalized in 1923. He recovered sufficient strength to return to work for a short time, but in March 1924, Gray passed away at Allegheny General Hospital, attended by close friends. His remains were interred in Barry, Illinois, alongside his parents. Upon his passing, the Deaf-Mute Journal published an extensive biography of Gray, including correspondence from those who had known and were fond of him, remembering him as a wise and generous man beloved by many.

Frank R. Gray opened a savings account at Dollar Bank in August 1895.

Account signature of Frank R. Gray