John Gray, news anchor for WXXA-Fox TV 23 and ABC’S WTEN News Channel 10, is currently on a book tour to local elementary schools reading his new book "Keller's Heart." (Emily Benson photo)
John Gray, news anchor for WXXA-Fox TV 23 and ABC’S WTEN News Channel 10, is currently on a book tour to local elementary schools reading his new book "Keller's Heart." (Emily Benson photo)

The Evangelist continues its interview series with John Gray, news anchor for WXXA-Fox TV 23 and ABC’S WTEN News Channel 10 and columnist for the Troy Record, the Saratogian and Capital Region Living Magazine. Born and raised in Troy, Gray has been delivering the news to the Capital District for over 25 years. Over the course of his career, Gray has won numerous awards for his television work and writing, including an Emmy Award. Recently, Gray has published two children’s picture books: “God Needed a Puppy” and “Keller’s Heart.” He is currently on a book tour visiting local elementary schools. Emily Benson of the Evangelist sat down with Gray to talk about his Catholic faith, his recent works and the importance of freedom of the press.

TE: Tell me about your upbringing
JG: I grew up in South Troy. I went to St. Joseph’s elementary from kindergarten through sixth grade. My brothers were already in La Salle (Institute) so I was able to go to La Salle in seventh grade. So I had a Catholic education from kindergarten through 12th grade.

TE: Did having a Catholic education make an impact on you?
JG: Oh absolutely. I was very involved in the church as well. I started as an altar boy and then eventually when I was older I became a Eucharistic minister and a lector. Everything I think I do filters through that lens of a Catholic upbringing, a Catholic faith and the religion that I practice.

TE: Was your family religious?
JG: My father sang in the choir, my brothers were altar boys, so church was something that was expected of us but — as much as kids don’t always want to go — I look back with very fond memories of the times I spent in church, and the lessons I learned in the classroom too with La Salle and the Christian brothers. 

TE: Do you recall your first religious memory or experience? 
JG: When I was a paperboy in Troy — because I was going to church and active with the church, and not all my customers in South Troy were well off — (and I met) some people that were downright poor and (saw) how the church community helped them. One memory that sticks out to me this time of year was this woman who always paid me at the door and never let me in, and then one day she let me in. I saw her bed had been pushed to the center of the house, like everything else was shut. And I figured out — I saw her, she was looking for change to pay me — she couldn’t afford to heat the whole place so she had one heater going and she had her bed pushed toward the kitchen. And you realize boy, there are people who really have it tough out there and you do think of how can I help her in some way.

TE: Did you know growing up that you wanted to be a journalist?
JG: I knew I wanted to be a writer from fourth grade on. I had a teacher who encouraged it when I was a little kid. She told me, “Your writings are cute and funny” and she had me read a couple things to the class, and I saw it got a reaction and (thought) this is kind of fun. And then when I went to La Salle, I had a teacher named David Kissick who taught English ... he was very encouraging of my writing in seventh and eighth grade. He pulled me aside one day and told me to go to the bookstore and buy this little blank folder — I think they were a nickel back then — and I said why, and he said, “Don’t ask questions; go get one.” And when I came back, he gave me an A-plus on a paper and said, “I want you to start saving these things you’re writing because I see a lot of kids come through and you’ve got something that’s different.”

TE: How do you balance your faith with your career as a journalist?
JG: I think a couple things. There’s a tremendous responsibility with being the person who’s out there like that. I have children, and you always want your children to look up to you or think you don’t do anything embarrassing or stupid. But also you know people look to me and I try to set an example as much as I can and I really try to, in my writing, bring a moral. ... like when you give a dog a medicine you sort of take something really good and you hide the medicine in there. I take the things I write and I sort of hide the teachings of Christ often in my writing. And you can quote me on this: I believe there’s a heaven and I hope when I get there, hopefully someday, God looks at me and winks and says I saw what you were doing down there.

TE: Is it true that when you first proposed “God Needed a Puppy” they asked you to take “God” out of the title?
JG: Yes, I had gotten mostly ignored when I was sending it out, some rejections and some were really kind … and one in particular said there’s so much wrong here that doesn’t work with a book like this. I wrote back and I said … could you tell me what you mean, I want to learn something here. She said, “I have nothing against what you’re trying to do but the minute you put the word “God” in the title like 80 percent of the people walking by in the store won’t pick it up, so you have to get “God” out of the title.” And I said, “I see what you’re saying, and if you read the story, which you clearly did, if you take God out of the story you change the story entirely, so there is no story.” So I decided I’d rather self-publish it to get it out there and see what happens then to completely throw it out the window.

TE: And then after you kept “God” in the title it was successful? 
JG: Right, it sold enough to get the attention of an agent who actually dealt with more Christian authors. I tried every agent you could find and they all said no. And one night I remember sitting at this desk in the newsroom ... and I said — it was almost like I was talking to God — I said well, I did what I could do. You didn’t send me anybody. And I thought for a second, did I do everything that I could do or am I looking at this the wrong way? I thought, I wonder if there are agents who specialize in Christian writers. So I googled it and there were like three or four, and I sent the proposal to all four and one of them got right back to me and said, “We love this book.”

TE: And this book was based on your own experience?
JG: It was based on me losing a puppy at six months old named Samuel and I wasn’t moving past the sadness of it. And I lost dogs my whole life but never a puppy; it just seemed so unfair. I remember thinking this must be how a kid feels. When you’re an adult, you rationalize, “Hey he was old, he had a good life,” but when it’s a baby dog, you’re like, “This is just not fair.” That’s why I wanted to write the story. 

TE: What was your inspiration for writing “Keller’s Heart?”
JG: That was based on the dog we adopted ... a blind (dog) named Keller who was abandoned and found and brought to a shelter. I met him by accident, or it was one of those God winks where I was in the right place at the right time because I’ve never been to a shelter in my life. He lived with me for about a year and I was just watching how all the preconceived notions I had about having a dog with disabilities or special needs were wrong. And I thought, you know what, I should write a story about him.

TE: Have you always been a dog person?
JG: Yeah, we always had them growing up. We always had German Shepherds; Keller was the first dog I ever had who wasn’t a German Shepherd, he was an Australian Shepherd. Now I have two German Shepherds and the fourth dog is named Eli. He’s deaf but he can see. He’s a rescue, too. 

TE: How did the school tours you’re currently doing get started?
JG: It came to me one day that the Keller book was really good for learning to accept people who are different. Not to prejudge like, ‘Oh, that girl’s in a wheelchair, she can’t really do anything,’ or ‘That kid’s deaf, he’s different than me (and) I don’t want to sit with him at lunch.’ I just thought of Keller and (that) this could be a good book to take to schools. 

TE: Has it been rewarding?
JG: It really is. I love being around little kids and seeing their faces, and the last page (of the book) it shows the real Keller and has a little message from him. (The kids are) like, “Wait, this is a real dog?” I tell them, “Yeah, he lives in North Greenbush; he’s only a half hour from you. We take him to the Crossings sometimes, you might see him getting ice cream.” They love the idea that he’s real. 

TE: Can you talk about why it’s so important to have a free press?
JG: I think it’s very important to have a free press and I hate it when I see any newspapers struggling or going under. People are like, “Oh, newspapers are dead; everyone looks on their phones,” and that troubles me. We need independent voices, we need newspapers; we need people … who went to school and studied this because people don’t understand the difference anymore between something read on Facebook and something that was actually written by a journalist. People are just sharing, sharing, sharing, without knowing all the facts, which is scary. 

TE: What’s the biggest thing you learned from your career as a journalist?
JG: Something I learned a long time ago is the old saying, nobody shaves your face in the mirror but you. I mean, you have to feel good about what you did that day, so it’s not worth it to chase something or put something on the air that is going to give you instant gratification but then later you’re going to feel lousy about it. 

TE: Do you have a life 

JG: The one thing I’ve learned in my old age at 56 — almost 57 — is just to forgive more; to let go of stuff that doesn’t matter. My mom had a little stencil thing before she died years ago and it said, “If it won’t matter a year from now, don’t let it bother you so much today.” And I really do think that forgiveness is something people need more in their lives. People walk around with these grudges and you’re not hurting the person you’re mad at, you’re hurting yourself. That’s the one thing I’ve really learned in my years, just let stuff go.