films through his nonprofit, World War II Foundation
KINGSTON, R.I., Oct. 8, 2014 – In a few years, most World War II veterans will be gone. Tim Gray wants to interview them now – before it’s too late.
Gray is a University of Rhode Island journalism graduate who left a successful career as a TV sportscaster to make documentary films about the men and women who fought and survived World War II.
His latest initiative – in between producing the hour-long films – is sharing snippets of the 200 interviews he’s complied over the past eight years on his website. They’re available for free to students, educators, researchers and the public.
“We’re trying to get as many of these shorter interviews on the website now,” he says. “About 600 World War II veterans are dying every day so the window is closing rapidly to hear personally from that generation.”
Gray’s World War II Foundation is one of the only organizations in the country that produces films about the World War II generation and then donates those films to American Public Television and its PBS affiliates, which airs them worldwide.
A few months ago, he started posting edited and shorter individual stories. Each segment runs about six minutes.
“It’s a resource that gives students greater access to what made this generation so incredible,” he says. “It’s geared toward high school and college students who want to learn about history, but don’t necessarily have hours to sit through a veteran or survivor talking about their experience of being at Pearl Harbor or their journey through the Holocaust.”
The project is funded by Richard and Betsy Porter, of Delaware. Gray reached out to Rick Porter after his horse, Normandy Invasion, finished fourth in last year’s Kentucky Derby. Gray was intrigued, of course, by the horse’s name.
World War II has been a passion for Gray since he was a boy. When he was 6 years old, he picked up an encyclopedia about the war and read everything he could. “There were amazing stories of courage and sacrifice,” he says. “To me, it’s the most fascinating period in the history of the world.”
After graduating from URI in 1989, Gray worked throughout the country as a TV sportscaster, in Florida, Michigan and the state of Washington. In 1999, he landed his dream job at Channel 10 in Providence.
Five years later, he left to become a documentary filmmaker – a decision he has never regretted. “Fifteen years in the TV news business is a long time,” he says. “It was enough.”
In his first film, in 2006, he took five veterans from Rhode Island back to Normandy, thanks, in part, to a private donation. The documentary won a couple of Emmys, and Gray was on his way.
Since then, Gray and videojournalist Jim Karpeichik have produced 12 films, many award-winning. Gray takes veterans to battlefields in Europe and the Pacific, where they fought and saw many of their fellow soldiers die. Last year American Public Television awarded Gray’s foundation its National Programming Excellence Award.
Gray recalls one visit to Normandy this past June that was especially moving. The veteran’s name was Ernie Corvese, a Smithfield resident. During the war, the U.S. Navy demolition seaman jumped out of a boat on Omaha Beach just as a German artillery round blew up his landing craft. Everyone onboard was killed. Ernie survived only because he was the first man off.
“We both visited the area where his boat blew up, and he cried,” says Gray.
The foundation is a nonprofit so Gray relies on private donations to continue his work. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, actor Tom Hanks, director Steven Spielberg and former president George W. Bush are among the famous who have who have contributed.
Belichick’s late father fought in World War II. It’s now a tradition for Gray to have Belichick screen his films before they’re sent to PBS. “To hear you do incredible work from Bill Belichick is pretty nice,” Gray says.
A 1989 graduate of URI, Gray credits the University for giving him the skills to pursue his journalism and film careers. “It was a great experience for me,” he says. “I have a long history with the University.”
His father, Walter Gray, worked for 30 years at URI, and his mother, Mary Cozzolino Gray, graduated from the University in 1952. Tim’s brother, Walt Gray, graduated from URI in 1979 and is a popular news anchor in Sacramento, Calif. Tim is married to Sheila Martin Gray, also a 1989 URI graduate, and his daughter, Shannon Brassil, will graduate from URI in 2015.
“URI gave me the foundation to become a writer, a communicator and a risk-taker,” says Gray. “ It all started in Kingston, and thankfully I’ve found something in my professional life that I absolutely love to do.”
In November, Gray will return to Wiltz, Luxembourg with Richard Brookins, of Rochester, N.Y., to take part in his last “American” Saint Nicholas celebration. During the war, Brookins, dressed up as St. Nick, and other soldiers handed out toys to the children for the holiday – a gesture the townspeople have never forgotten. Gray will be there to record Brookins’ journey, maybe for the last time. He’s in his 90s.
“These men are heroes in Europe,” Gray says. “It’s an honor to be the conduit for many of their incredible stories.”
Click here for more information about the World War II Foundation.
Photo above, from left to right: Jim Karpeichik, owner of Ocean State Video, former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and Tim Gray at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France in June 2014 during D-Day’s 70th anniversary. Photo courtesy of the World War II Foundation.