Virgil Gray Conrad never held a mortgage, never borrowed money, and never used a credit card. Cash or checks have always been the method used to purchase everything. The only exception was an appliance purchase using Sears Revolving Credit (SRC) many years ago. When Mr. Conrad received the first statement and saw the interest expense, he quickly paid the full amount due and never repeated the consumer trap of buy now, pay later.
Gray and Martha Mock Sprinkle married on April 25, 1947 after Mr. Conrad returned from the Pacific Theater where he fought in the 81st Infantry Wildcat Division during World War II. Before he returned home, Major General Paul J. Mueller pinned a Silver Star on Staff Sergeant Conrad for his acts of valor during the invasions and battles on Angaur and Peleliu. The 321st Regimental Combat Team, where Conrad was assigned, lost 170 men (KIA) and 545 wounded. Enemy forces killed were 1,300. Former Secretary of State George Schultz also fought with the 321st RCT on both Angaur and Peleliu. Captain Schultz was the only Marine to have fought with the army unit as he served as Marine liaison officer.
Gray was born February 4, 1919 in Lewisville, North Carolina which is now a small incorporated town next to Winston-Salem. Mr. Conrad grew up in the rural area where his father farmed and worked as janitor at Lewisville School. Young Conrad often helped his dad sweep the school floors in return for a sandwich from the school cafeteria. When church socials were held for fund raising, a nickel would buy a cone of homemade ice cream. Children who didn't have a nickel were allowed to lick the dasher. Gray was one of those youngsters without a nickel.
Reverend G. W. Fink was the depression-era preacher at Lewisville Methodist Church in 1930. He told the parishioners, "$30,000 is needed to build a new church building. Some of you have money and some have muscle." The Conrad family were among those who had muscle and responded to the call by employing their labor to mill trees into lumber to satisfy the church pledge during the building project.
After the war, Gray worked for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for a few years before he entered barber school on Trade Street. Barbering has been his life profession for 50 years. He still cuts a few heads of hair only on Mondays in the shop beside his home. Mr. Will Reynolds, tobacco tycoon, was a regular customer in Gray's first barber shop. A haircut was priced at 75 cents. Mr. Conrad was both puzzled and amused by the old man's lack of gratitute and habit of not offering a tip for Gray's service.
Gray proudly tells of building his house in 1955 partly with his own labor and with money he and Martha saved from their earnings. Martha worked as a bookkeeper at Snyder Lumber Company on Vargrave Street in Winston-Salem for several years, a tax preparer a few more years and later in life became a teacher's aid at Vienna Elementary School.
"The floor joists in the house are 2 by 12 oak lumber", said Gray as he described the timber he had milled for their house. When Gray and Martha moved into their new residence, materials costs and contractors were paid in full in the amount of $11,040.
Those dollars would have the buying power of $88,320 in year 2008. Think about that for a moment. How many folks today accumulate that much money before buying a home?
Today the loving couple still live in that attractive, well maintained, and comfortable home. While Gray tends several garden plots and cuts hair one day per week, both Conrads are assisted by a live-in caregiver, Rhonda Mabe. Ms. Mabe attends to daily duties inside the house and sometimes in the yard and garden as well. For several years now Mrs. Conrad's health condition has required full time assistance from both her husband and Rhonda. Gray, now age 90, accepts the difficulties of aging, caregiving, housekeeping, and barbering in the spirit of ... soldier on.
A girl and boy were born to Gray and Martha in December 1952 and November 1954. Their daughter, Margil, (derived from the first 3 letters of Martha and the last 3 of Virgil) was born first and is an eleventh grade history teacher at Cary High School in Cary, North Carolina. It is heartwarming to hear Margil describe her childhood. She adored her hero daddy and frequently visited the barber shop to see her father at work and to meet customers and people in the community. Their son, Larry, also speaks admiringly of the way Gray and Martha supported his youth activities in scouting, school, church, and more. Larry achieved Eagle Scout status. He is now a 29 year employee at Nortel in Research Triangle Park and lives in Raleigh with his wife and two sons. Margil and Larry closely monitor and frequently visit their aging parents.
Gray has always been a sociable person. He is respected, admired and liked by many people. Spirited debates often occur at Old Richmond Grill where he visits friends for morning coffee. Gray is usually the one who incites others who erupt into loud talk as they espouse "truth" about the matter under discussion. Politics, social programs, work, and money are popular topics.
Gray Conrad's life embodies core values that have not been adopted by many people in following generations. The qualities and ideals of patriotism, willingness to put oneself in harm's way, one marriage, living debt free, living within one's means, tilling soil, and growing fresh vegetables are traits that have largely vanished in modern society. Only time will reveal if those core values were wisely abandoned.
Gray, thank you for being a friend.
The three pictures were taken on June 1, 2009: Starting at the top photo is Mr. Conrad, next is his house, and last is Vienna Barber Shop. Click to enlarge the pictures. The bottom image is the awards ceremony where Gray received the country's third highest award for valor, the Silver Star.
Have a good week!