CUMMING, Ga. — It is a bittersweet time for the West Forsyth High School community involved with the theater and chorus programs.
Veteran Theater and Choral Director Eric Gray has announced his retirement after 12 years at the school and 32 years working as a performer, director and musician. He had previously taught at South Forsyth High School.
Gray is currently in the hospital being treated for a recent leukemia diagnosis. He was initially diagnosed during open heart surgery earlier this year. At 62, he has decided to step down from his professional endeavors and concentrate on his health. Having enjoyed his position for so many years, it was a difficult decision, he said.
Admired by his students for the hard work, energy, and passion that he brings to the classroom, Gray’s entire professional life has been devoted to the performing arts.
Since the age of 13, Gray has been professionally involved with the arts, first performing on stage as an actor before pursuing a degree in musical education at Birmingham-Southern College. He then began pursuing advanced study at the University of Alabama before receiving his master’s degree from William-Carey College. Gray spent years perfecting his craft of acting and singing from expert stage professionals. Afterwards, he decided to pursue a professional life as a performer.
Since beginning his career, he has performed as a soloist at the New Orleans World’s Fair, toured internationally as a cast member of Sondheim’s “Side by Side,” starred in multiple productions in regional theaters throughout the United States and performed with jazz legends such as Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson. He has brought this experience to the classroom, leaving a huge impact on many of his students over the years.
Once he began to focus his career on teaching, he became a 10-time recipient of “Who’s Who among American Teachers, Teachers of Distinction.” Many of his students have gone on to experience success of their own in the arts. Some have gone on to win state festival competitions, while others have signed professional contracts for theaters, cruise lines and recording studios. For every year of his teaching career, his choral students have received superior ratings while winning numerous competitions. Although Gray is not married with children of his own, he has always considered his students to be his kids and their successes to define his legacy as an instructor.
“It is our goal to train students to be professional in their art as well as their lives. Character is something you train and continue to grow throughout life, not just onstage,» Gray said in a statement from the school’s website. «With each student comes the possibility of success. At West we hope to help them realize that success and let them share it with the world at large.»
Students have admired Gray’s dedication to the school’s artistic programs throughout the years, selecting unique shows that garner attention.
Zach Morris, a former senior president of West Forsyth’s Thespian Troupe, expressed his admiration for the theater program, saying he felt it was a supportive environment that felt like a “family.” Gray’s work in the program inspired him to pursue his BFA in theatrical design and production with a focus in direction.
“Mr. Gray is an amazing guy and he really has one of the strongest wills of anyone I’ve ever known,” Morris said. “He pushes us to work hard, even when we think we can’t do anything else. He sees what we can be and pushes us to get there.”
Morris added that Gray’s love of his students and his profession was evident in the long hours he spent rehearsing with students one-on-one and his attention to each student.
“We all know how lucky we are to be in a program with him as our director,” he said.
Parents have also praised Gray for his work.
Jennifer Vasquezi, a volunteer parent who has worked with the program for seven years at West Forsyth, said she has enjoyed her time in charge of the props and painting the sets while her two daughters performed in various productions. She said Gray’s retirement announcement was “a little bittersweet.”
“He’s really talented with choosing his shows and casting the right kids in the right parts,” Vasquezi said. “He’s strict but loving. He has a very high standard that he expects to be held up to. But at the same time, he can joke around with the kids… He relates to them all and it’s like he thinks they’re professional actors. Sometimes, we have to remind him that these are students,” she said laughing. “They’re all such good friends. It’s this really welcoming environment.”