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September 11, 2003

Obituary: Wendell Leonard Wray

web wray obitProfessor emeritus Wendell Wray died Aug. 24, 2003, in San Francisco, CA, following a heart attack. He was 77.

A native Pittsburgher, Wray was the first African-American man to graduate from the library school housed at then-Carnegie Institute of Technology, earning his M.L.S. in 1952.

Wray graduated from South Hills High School, where he mastered Spanish and learned the art of making mobiles by studying the work of Alexander Calder.

Following military service in the U.S. Army during World War II, he accepted a scholarship under the GI Bill to attend a small liberal arts college — sight unseen — in Maine. He entered Bates College in Lewiston for what he described as the four happiest years of his life. He was the poet laureate of his class, and his poetry was celebrated at the class’s 50th reunion in 2000.

He graduated from Bates in 1950, Phi Beta Kappa in Spanish and psychology, and returned to Pittsburgh, entering the Carnegie Tech library science program.

After earning his M.L.S., he became the first African-American male hired by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where he worked for seven years during the 1950s.

In 1959, Wray moved to New York City, working at the New York Public Library for 14 years, serving in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and directing the North Manhattan Library Project, a cultural outreach program that introduced arts and humanities programs to inner-city youths.

While in New York, he was encouraged by Alex Haley, author of “Roots,” to study at Columbia University’s newly established program in oral history, where his personal and professional fascination with this approach to historical and literary documentation began.

In 1973, Wray was appointed a faculty member at Pitt’s library school, the academic successor to the Carnegie Tech program from which he had graduated and from which he had received the 1973 Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Wray taught students about reference and collections development, public libraries and oral history collections. He also taught about library services to the underserved and about African-American bibliography.

According to colleague and friend Ellen Detlefsen, Wray was beloved by his students for his experience, his caring approach to their professional education and his absolute integrity and professional demeanor.

“He was a model professor, always concerned with the welfare of his students and the currency of his classes,” said Detlefsen, associate professor of library and information science here. “He was passionate about the causes near to his heart: book collecting, libraries and services for minority communities, music, cooking, his church.”

Detlefsen was a 28-year-old junior faculty member when Wray was a senior faculty member twice her age. She became his life-long friend and confidante.

“He told wonderful stories  — of being at the March on Washington and hearing Martin Luther King make the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, of working with Alex Haley on oral history projects, of traveling in Spain. He loved hot and sour soup, dogs, public television and bookstores,” she said.

Wray remained at the School of Information Sciences for 15 years, taking a two-year leave in 1981-1983 to return to the New York Public Library as director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Upon his retirement from Pitt in 1988, he was awarded emeritus status.

Wray was an inveterate traveler, especially in the Hispanic world where his fluency in Spanish was an asset. He was particularly fond of visiting Spain and Puerto Rico. He moved to the Bay area in California in 1992, but maintained close ties with colleagues in Pittsburgh.

Wray’s father, an engineering graduate of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, was the first black engineer hired by Duquesne Light in Pittsburgh. The son of Arthur J. and Mamie Quarles Wray, Wendell Wray grew up in Beltzhoover, and remembered that when he watched the lights come on across the city, his mother would tell him that his father was lighting up the city of Pittsburgh.

Wray is survived by his sister, Louise Wray Stewart; two nieces, Lynne and Lisa Stewart, and several cousins.

A memorial service is scheduled for Oct. 17, 2003, at 11 a.m., at Calvary Episcopal Church.

At his request, Wray’s ashes will be distributed over the lake at Camp James Weldon Johnson, the Pittsburgh Urban League’s camp for young black children where he served as a counselor in the 1940s.

Memorial contributions may be made to a Department of Library and Information Science fund established in Wray’s name. Send checks payable to the University of Pittsburgh and marked for the “Wendell Wray Memorial Fund” to Andrew D. Falk, director of development, School of Information Sciences, 135 N. Bellefield Ave., Pittsburgh 15260.


—Peter Hart                      


Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 2

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