City honors former recreation center managers

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By James Cullum (Photo/James Cullum)

Lifelong Alexandrians Traverse Gray, Lawrence “Lucky” Elliott and Jackie Mason have given their lives to Alexandria’s youth, and the trio of former recreation center managers were celebrated by a packed house of residents at the Nannie J. Lee Center Sunday for molding thousands of the city’s black youth over the course of their lives.

Former Mayor Bill Euille attributed much of his personal success to Mason, Elliott and Gray.

“These three gentlemen, lifelong residents of Alexandria, products of our public school system, have been mentors, role models, coaches — you name it,” Euille said at the event. “Let these men be an inspiration to us, that if they can do it we can do it.”

Many of the children the three gentlemen mentored over the years went on to successful business and sporting careers, including Gray, 74, who became the director of the Cora Kelly Recreation Center in 1973. He wants to be remembered as a man who helped children. Gray started his career as a part-time recreation coach in 1959 after graduating from the all-black Parker-Gray High School.

He became the director at the Nannie J. Lee Center in 1981, and served as director of the Charles Houston recreation Center from 1993 until his retirement in 2006.

“You want a life of peace and good citizenship, and that’s what we preached,” Gray said. “Whatever was going on that wasn’t right with the kids that I was dealing with, I told them they had a choice, and part of my job was to get them into a safe haven.

“My advice has always been to stay out of trouble, and trouble is some place easy to get into. Don’t fall into that trap. You have to be careful how you pick your friends and who you hang out with. Obey your parents. You’re not going to be able to please everybody, but do the best you can and enjoy life like you’re supposed to, waking up in the morning being proud and having freedom without owning an ugly reputation.”

Elliott, 72, is a Parker-Gray High School graduate, and started coaching in Alexandria when he was 16 years old. He officially started working with the department of recreation, parks and cultural activities in 1976, and served as the center director and youth sports supervisor at Charles Houston Recreation Center, retiring in 2009 after working with the city’s youth for nearly a half century.

He started the Alexandria Boxing Club, co-founded the We Care Organization, an advocacy group to fight drugs, and led an anti-drug march in 1985 to raise awareness of the growing heroin and drug problem in the city.

“I won some battles and lost some battles. I lost some kids to drugs,” Elliott said. “One day, a coach came in and said that one of my kids had a drug overdose, and that’s why we marched in 1985. The city has changed since then, but people still die every day of drug overdoses in Virginia. It’s as bad now and it may be worse. We need more people out there mentoring and coaching kids.”

The three would regularly take teams of players for exhibition basketball games to the former Lorton Prison.

“That was a part of my scared-straight tactic, to show them the gates and the towers and to see what the inside of a prison looks like,” Elliott said.

Mason was unable to attend the ceremony for health reasons. He started his career with the recreation department as a coach in 1961, and began working for the city full time in 1977. He became the director of the Cameron Valley Recreation Center in 1980 and became director of the Cora Kelly Recreation Center in 1993.

Anthony Gray, one of Traverse Gray’s sons, said that he and his boyhood friends came to respect the honorees for their community work.

“Kids know when you’re real, and even to this day we have fierce loyalty to these gentlemen,” he said. “They didn’t get paid for a lot of their work. … You might read about them in the paper, but the paper won’t do justice to what they did.

“They worked in neighborhoods that even the police didn’t want to go to. But those kids who lived in those bad neighborhoods had such respect for these gentlemen that whatever happened outside of the center never happened inside of the center.”

City Councilor John Chapman said the honorees hold a special place in his heart.

“Many times the folks working in the recreation departments in our communities don’t get the respect that they deserve for the work that they do,” he said. “We don’t realize that many times these folks touch and educate more lives than many of our teachers, that they change the health patterns of people in our families more than doctors.”

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