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Nancy Gray carries out husband’s wish to preserve Outer Banks history through new book

Corolla, which encompasses the northern portion of the Outer Banks, is a place where it can seem as though the past has been frozen in time. A place where memories have always been made, along the sandy beaches and dune lines. A place where history will forever be imprinted into the hearts of those who have traveled there and now call Corolla home.

In the beginning, Corolla was a place where inhabitants would make use of the land to earn a living. Hardy, brave individuals took to the desolate landscape and had to work hard to provide for their families. Men who scarified their lives to save shipwrecked passengers, duck hunters, cattle raisers and entrepreneurs called Corolla home. The clean, polished look of the area today is no comparison to what it was. The residents may have changed, but the sand beneath their feet remains the same.

The late R. Wayne Gray and his wife, Nancy Beach Gray, had spent the first half of 2020 collecting memories in the form of photographs and long-told stories from Corolla. In their latest book, Corolla: Images of America, the couple has vividly depicted the diverse stretch of land that has now sketched its name in history.

Growing up in Wanchese, Wayne had been immersed in the culture of the Outer Banks area since he was born. After graduating from North Carolina State University with a degree in English and teaching at a local high school, Wayne opened up a restaurant with Nancy’s father, all while writing poetry and short stories along the way.

Wayne had written 12 poetry books and a couple of short stories. Regarding his first go as a writer, Wayne told The Coastland Times in the summer of 2020, “I started with 5,000 copies, I think I ended up with 4,500 of them.” He laughed beside Nancy as they both sat down to discuss their new book at the time, Manteo: Images of America.

After passing their restaurant on to a young woman by the name of Johanna, the Grays said they were ready for the next chapter of their life. “We didn’t know anything about the restaurant business, fortunately,” said Wayne at the time. “We stayed in it for almost 30 years, then made a wedding venue out of it, but that wasn’t what we wanted.”

“We waited a long time for someone to come along, and fortunately Johanna came along. She worked in the kitchen for about a year and then she leased it,” he had explained.

After moving on from his restaurant days, Wayne decided to take on a couple of history novel projects. He eventually got associated with Arcadia Publishing in Charleston and was churning out book after book.

“I said to Nance, why don’t you come in with me and help me with these books?” Arcadia was very interested in the history of the Outer Banks and with Nancy working by his side, Wayne was able to produce several imagery novels which highlight various topics in and around the Outer Banks.

In the midst of their latest piece, Wayne passed away of heart complications after surgery in August of 2020. His wish, as he expressed to his wife, was to make sure the book was finished.

“We had spent all this time together in quarantine,” started Nancy, “and he had an inkling time drawing nigh, so he started telling and teaching me things . . . where the secret stash of money was, how to fix the roof . . . and one of things he told me was that I had to finish the book we were working on regarding Corolla.”

Nancy told The Coastland Times in July of 2021 that it was hard to concentrate for long periods of time and finishing the book was extremely difficult. But she laughed as she said: “I could feel him [Wayne] breathing down my neck.”

“Thank goodness he wrote a lot down,” Nancy chuckled. “He was so driven to preserve Outer Banks history and so driven to do what we said we were going to do.”

The kicker came during quarantine, when usual methods of collecting information and researching archives was suddenly impossible. Not having the ability to meet with people normally or sit down and go through old documents, manuscripts and photo albums meant Nancy and Wayne had to figure something else out.

“We started trying to figure out who grew up in Corolla,” said Nancy. Reaching out to several individuals and asking about relatives and friends and friends of friends, Wayne and Nancy were able to speak to enough individuals to gather hundreds of photos lost in time. Some people where generous enough to meet with the couple while maintaining social distance and mask mandates, whereas others reverted to technologic means to develop and share photographs digitally.

After Wayne passed, Nancy said she mainly had to caption the photographs and put everything together. “The nice thing for me was that it felt like part of my grieving process. It felt like I was spending the day with him, reading his writing and thinking how he would want me to do this.”

After missing the first deadline, Nancy said their publishing company was gracious enough to offer an extension. She pushed through and Corolla: Images of America hit the bookshelves on August 2.

Along with finishing this piece and working on a few others, Nancy and her family have worked to establish a scholarship with the College of The Albemarle in Wayne’s name. Since Wayne had taught at both Manteo Elementary and COA, the family felt that giving back to students was something Wayne would have wanted.

In an effort to raise funds for the endowment, Nancy and her family and friends have organized a big shrimp dinner for Friday, August 13 at Bethany United Methodist Church in Wanchese.

“The menu will be reminiscent of Queen Anne’s,” Nancy said. Casseroles, zucchini muffins and homemade desserts that were once served at their restaurant will make their way to the dinner. “We’re hoping to do it every year,” she shared.

As for the book, Nancy has book signings planned, including one at Downtown Books in Manteo on Friday, August 6.

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