Buddy Gray wasn't one to sell out

He was an early bird.

Monday mornings would find him at his desk by 7:30 a.m. doing paper work in his basement office.

He'd greet co-worker Agnes Mack with the same words as she walked through the door.

''Agnes! Always on time.''

Around 11:30 a.m. he'd wander upstairs. It was lunchtime at the Drop-Inn Center Shelter House in Over-the-Rhine.

''He'd help the guys in wheelchairs and on crutches,'' says resident tour guide Junior Baughn. ''He'd bring trays to the table and cut up their food.''

That's what Buddy Gray would be doing today, if he hadn't been shot to death Friday morning.

The activist whose reputation ranged from selfless advocate for the homeless to selfish opportunist was gunned down in a first-floor office at the shelter. He was conducting job interviews to fill an opening for a maintenance worker.

''Buddy sat in on every interview,'' said Agnes Mack, a staff counselor at the shelter. ''He wanted to know what kind of people were working here.''

And what kind of man was Buddy Gray? Depends on whom you ask.

Saint. Sinner. Angel for the homeless. Roadblock to downtown development. Charmer. Manipulator.

Not fade away

Love him or hate him, Buddy Gray was still doing something. Long after other activists had traded their protest signs for stock portfolios, he was still manning picket lines. He wanted to help people who were not as fortunate as he was to grow up in a middle-class suburb of Cincinnati.

''We went to Washington, D.C., to protest for the homeless,'' Junior Baughn recalled. ''We traveled to President Bush's home in Kennebunkport, Maine, too. That's where we called for more food for the homeless.''

Buddy Gray's style was openly confrontational. Along with helping others, he may have been helping himself - he directed a non-profit organization that's the second-largest landlord in Over-the-Rhine. But, to people like Junior Baughn, ''Buddy Gray was the kind of man who would go head over heels to help anyone - and I mean anyone, black or white, Chinese or Japanese, you name it, brother - who came through that door.''

Junior Baughn pointed to the shelter's front door and looked away. Tears slipped down his creased cheeks and he shamelessly wiped them away.

Behind him, a man snored as he slumped across a bench. He was doing his best to sleep off the night before.

This was Buddy Gray's legacy, front and center, unshaven and smelling of drink, in old rumpled clothes and mis-matched shoes with holes in the soles.

But he had a safe place to crash and someone to look out for him.

Now, Buddy Gray's gone. Who will step up to take his place? Who'll look after that man on the bench?

Honorable calling

Being an activist is an old-fashioned job. It got phased out somewhere between the me-decade and the down-sized '90s.

Few go into this line of work. Even fewer stick with it. The odds of failure are overwhelming. Burnout strikes early. Becoming a longtime activist seems impossible.

Buddy Gray stuck it out so long he became a brand name. When you read about him, the mind automatically added the phrase, ''spokesman for the homeless.''

He may have grown more stubborn as he aged and stood in the way of progress in Over-the-Rhine and downtown. But, until the end, he was out there, calling homeless people to our attention.

So, when lunchtime rolls around today at the Drop-Inn Center, Buddy Gray won't be carrying trays of food to the poor.

Where will you be?

I'll wager more than a few of yesterday's rebels, who in their youth were going to save the world, will be networking on the phone in downtown office towers. When they head out to do lunch on bustling Main Street and encounter some of Buddy's charges on the sidewalk, they'll wonder: Why doesn't someone do something about all these homeless people?

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.

Published Nov. 18, 1996.