OF VILLIANS AND HEROES: Tim Gray, seen here at the Providence World War II memorial, has made a dozen films about the participants of World War II. PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
By Patricia Daddona
PBN Staff Writer
Tim Gray, a University of Rhode Island graduate, has written, produced and directed 12 documentary films to date. His company, Tim Gray Media, is a consultant and contractor for the World War II Foundation, for which he is chairman. Gray collaborates in this work with video-journalist Jim Karpeichik, who owns Ocean State Video.
His latest initiative is sharing snippets of the 200 interviews he’s compiled over the past eight years on his website, www.wwiifoundation.org.
PBN: You became absorbed by stories about World War II at age 6. What drew you to this topic?
GRAY: To me, the time period represented one of the most interesting periods in the history of the world in terms of having villains and heroes. It was the personal stories of the people caught up in the war. It was a mix of stories of survival, leadership, courage, horror. It just made for great reading and it was all nonfiction.
PBN: What led you to establish the World War II Foundation?
GRAY: I’d left television news and really always had an interest in telling the stories of World War II veterans, so I decided to take a leap and give it a shot.
PBN: In your first film, in 2006, “D-Day: The Price of Freedom,” you took five veterans from Rhode Island back to Normandy in France. The film won two regional Emmys. How did that idea come about?
GRAY: In 2005, I was in Normandy with my wife … [It] was always a place I’d spent my life reading about, so it was at the top of the list. When we visited the American cemetery in Normandy I thought to myself, “How many Rhode Islanders are buried here?” When I got home I did the research and found out there were 99, which led to the thought, “Let’s bring some Rhode Islanders back and chronicle their experiences on D-Day.”
PBN: Was it hard to get veterans to participate?
GRAY: From an interview standpoint, no. But having them return to a place like Normandy where they saw so much is a little different sell.
We identified a core group of guys who each had a different experience on D-Day, one an airman, one in the Navy, a couple in the Army. And then I told them what I wanted to do. There was a little hesitation by two of the guys but they decided it would be good for them to go back after talking it over with their families.
PBN: How does your experience as a journalist and as a URI alumnus inform the way you tell these stories?
GRAY: As a journalist, spending 15 years in TV taught me two very important things. The first would be how to tell stories in a conversational manner. The second was working under two or three deadlines a day. As an alum, I had great journalism teachers, but I also had a brother in the business 10 years older than I am who taught me a lot about TV news.
PBN: What is your favorite film produced to date?
GRAY: Taking a Holocaust survivor back to Poland to retrace his story during the war was for me the most emotional. That was “A Promise to My Father.” We took him back to Treblinka Death Camp where his parents and younger brother were murdered and then back to Auschwitz where he was a slave laborer. It was very powerful. I had emotions I thought I’d never have, like walking into the gas chamber and actually feeling lightheaded because you know of the death that occurred there and the suffering. You see fingernail marks on the wall of people trying to claw their way out of the concrete structure. It’s just a place full of ghosts.
PBN: Tell us about your newest project.
GRAY: We just finished our 12th film on the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. We have four films in post-production now for 2015. Some films will air later this year and some will air in 2016. The first one is on the remaining four survivors of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on Aug. 18, 1942.
PBN: What led to the foundation’s role as an educational tool?
GRAY: I raised the money for and commissioned the sculptor to build a monument to American leadership in Normandy in 2010. It was dedicated June 6, 2012, so we began to go down a more educational path. We said, “This is an opportunity to donate [the films] so they can be seen by a global audience.” The foundation took hold; we said, “If we continue to do this we have a mission as a nonprofit.” We formed in March 2011 and it’s helped us grow the different initiatives we’ve undertaken since then to honor these men and women.
PBN: Is there any vet you’ve connected with?
GRAY: There have been a couple. There’s a guy in Woonsocket named Richard Fazzio. He was a U.S. Navy coxswain. If you saw “Saving Private Ryan,” he was the guy driving the boat that delivered the guys to Omaha Beach. He’s a small Italian guy who has more courage than I’ll experience in 10 lifetimes. He’s a gentle soul who saw the absolute worst of D-Day, saw all the guys on his boat killed – 30-plus guys. He was shot himself. … It’s absolutely refreshing. My wife says, “All your friends are 90 years old,” and I say, “That’s because they’re good people. I like them better.” Except that they’re dying, that’s the tough part. •
POSITION: Chairman, the World War II Foundation and president of Tim Gray Media
BACKGROUND: Gray grew up transfixed by the stories of bravery and survival associated with World War II. He honed his writing and production skills at TV stations in Florida, Michigan and Washington, returning to Rhode Island in 1999 to work at WJAR-TV NBC 10. Five years later, he decided to pursue a career as a documentary filmmaker. His first film, produced with collaborator Jim Karpeichik, won two regional Emmys. In 2011, he set up the World War II foundation as a nonprofit, and has four films in production.
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in journalism, University of Rhode Island, 1989
FIRST JOB: Keeping sports stats for the University of Rhode Island sports information department
RESIDENCE: South Kingstown