Antioch High grad killed in Ethiopia recalled as kind humanitarian

Those who knew Sharon Gray loved her compassion, infectious laugh and determination to make the world a better place.

The death of Gray, 31, a researcher who was killed this week in an apparent rock attack by protesters in Ethiopia, shook family, friends and mentors who remembered her as a humanitarian, even during her high school days in suburban Chicago.

"If there was some kind of humanitarian effort under way, whether it was a food drive or a clothing drive, Sharon was either organizing it or she was participating in it," said Mick Torres, who was an assistant principal at Antioch Community High School when Gray graduated in 2003. "This was a woman who was just beginning to make her mark in this world, and she would have done some amazing things."

Gray was especially gifted in the sciences and planned to use that knowledge to better society, said Torres, a Gray family friend who now works as an administrator at neighboring Community High School District 128 in Vernon Hills.

"She was going to feed the world," he said. "She was going to save the planet. If anybody had a vision and a plan for making that happen, that was her. She was just an inspiration to everybody."

Jim McKay taught Gray in his honors physics class at Antioch High.

"She was one of those students that kept me on my toes, and I thoroughly enjoyed that," said McKay, now superintendent of Community High School District 117, which includes Antioch High. "She demonstrated a skill set that not everybody demonstrates, and threaded through that was this kind, very, very happy, full person."

Gray's talents reached beyond the classroom, McKay said. She was a standout on the stage, playing the lead in several theater productions, he said. She also participated in gymnastics, field hockey, track and basketball, her family said.

Gray, who grew up in Lindenhurst, was the fifth of six children, all of whom were extremely close, said her sister Ruth Gray Wilke.

"Her brilliance, her beauty, her sweetness and her sense of humor is not exaggerated," Wilke said via Facebook Messenger. "She was positive, encouraging, inspiring and outstanding in every aspect of her life."

Wilke called her sister her best friend, and Gray was also godmother to Wilke's two sons.

In a public tribute on Facebook, Wilke wrote that Gray was "a bright light in a sometimes bleak world. My sister was laughter. She was love. She loved completely and without reserve. My sister lived every moment of her life. She took joy in every small happiness she could find."

Liz Whitehurst, who went to high school with Gray and worked with her on the school's literary magazine, remembers Gray's laugh vividly.

"She had a fantastic laugh," Whitehurst said.

After high school, Gray went on to become a leader in the study of the effect of climate change on plants, said Savithramma Dinesh-Kumar, chairman of Gray's plant biology department at the University of California-Davis.

"She's really an always-smiling slip of sunshine. She's a smart, energetic scientist," Dinesh-Kumar said. "She had a very bright future ahead of her. And everyone knew she was going to be the star in the plant biology research area."

Gray, a postdoctoral researcher, was in the East African country for a meeting to kick off a research project when she was killed Tuesday. She was traveling in a car in the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa, an area that has seen months of deadly protests.

In a statement, the family said they have been "so lucky to have shared part of our lives with her."

"Sharon was a passionate scientist, friend, spouse, sister, daughter, aunt, godmother and a colleague," the statement said. "We are picking each other up and growing together in her absence."

The family has started a fundraising webpage aimed at mentoring young women in science in her name.

Gray was the first foreigner killed in the massive anti-government protests that have claimed the lives of hundreds of protesters since November 2015. At least 55 were killed in a stampede last weekend when police tried to disrupt a demonstration amid a massive religious festival, which has been followed by clashes between security forces and protesters.

The circumstances of the attack that killed Gray are still unclear, Dinesh-Kumar said. Another U. of C.-Davis professor who was in Ethiopia was shaken but not hurt and is returning home, he said.

The U.S. Embassy on Wednesday attributed the death to head injuries from a rock thrown by "unknown individuals."

Gray earned her doctorate at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, in 2013 before moving to U. of C.-Davis with her husband, who is also a postdoctoral researcher. She was recently awarded a three-year National Science Foundation grant to study how growing levels of carbon dioxide affect plants.

She traveled to Ethiopia for her first meeting to discuss a separate research project she planned to conduct with the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and charitable organizations.

The U.S. State Department is assisting Gray's family, said U. of C.-Davis Interim Provost Ken Burtis and Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, in a message to the campus community.

"On behalf of the entire U.C.-Davis campus, our hearts and condolences go out to Sharon's husband and extended family," they wrote. "Even in tragedy, we hope that we all can find some comfort in the wonderful work Sharon was engaged in that will better the lives of so many around the world."

The Associated Press contributed.

deldeib@chicagotribune.com

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