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Longtime Oak Forest volunteer’s name to live on at animal agency

Not one to be put off by a hissing kitten, Laura Gray had a knack for calming even the feistiest felines at the Oak Forest Animal Control & Care Center.

“She would just snuggle with them, pull them in,” said Dawn Isenhart-Copp, Gray’s friend and colleague. “She was so excited when she’d come in that door.”

Gray, who died in February, was a relentless advocate for the dogs and cats at the Oak Forest facility, Isenhart-Copp said. The two animal lovers started Friends of Oak Forest Animal Control to help the critters at Animal Control find foster and permanent homes. It became a city commission in 2016. Gray also persuaded the City Council to fund the animals’ health needs when necessary.

“She could take the animals who needed extra socialization — she was very knowledgeable in medical cases, too,” said Isenhart-Copp, a former Oak Forest resident who now lives in Frankfort. “She would never give up on an animal.”

Laura Gray, who died Feb.  14 after battling cancer, made a large impact throughout the area by volunteering, especially with groups that helped abandoned animals.  (Terry Gray)
Laura Gray, who died Feb. 14 after battling cancer, made a large impact throughout the area by volunteering, especially with groups that helped abandoned animals. (Terry Gray)

Gray, a former alderwoman in Oak Forest for 16 years, died from cancer at age 62 on Feb. 14. Less than two months later, Oak Forest officials dedicated the renamed Laura Gray Animal Control & Care Center in her honor, during an April 9 City Council meeting.

The community where she left her mark is still mourning her loss. Gray also worked with Isenhart-Copp to start Bremen Dog Park at Harlem Avenue and 159th Street, making the calls and filing paperwork to acquire the land and raising money to erect fencing. Gray volunteered and fostered cats at Lulu’s Locker Rescue, a Frankfort-based foster organization that Isenhart-Copp started and manages. Gray also volunteered at PAWS Tinley Park, NAWS in Mokena and Feline Fine Cat Rescue, a foster organization with an adoption center in Homer Glen.

She and her husband, Terrence Gray, also an active volunteer in the community, had three Shih Tzus, and she looked after a colony of feral cats with the help of TripleRPets.

“Laura was my partner in animal rescue,” said Melissa Drozd, Oak Forest Animal Control officer. “She was my biggest advocate and I was always able to go to her with any questions, concerns or just to talk about anything in life.”

Drozd, who worked previously as a naturalist at Sagawau Environmental Learning Center in Lemont and in wildlife rehabilitation, said it could be hard getting the cats and dogs at Animal Control to trust people after they were abandoned, but Gray and other volunteers had a knack for it.

“She was fantastic with the animals,” Drozd said. “I can’t say enough good stuff about her.”

She said Gray regularly helped her evaluate animals, and then contacted rescue organizations to place them.

Isenhart-Copp said that compassion extended to the human residents of Oak Forest as well. As alderwoman, Gray was a source of support for residents, always ready to take their calls or texts, she said.

“She had a great personality, she was extremely persuasive, very kind,” Isenhart-Copp said. “She was a natural born leader.”

When the Oak Forest City Council unveiled the renamed Laura Gray Animal Control & Care Center plaque, the room was packed, according to Mayor Hank Kuspa.

“She had a huge heart,” said Kuspa, who teared up as he talked about her. “Yes it was animals, but she was concerned about just about everything. “She was the driving force behind beautification of the city and streetscape. She spent countless hours planting flowers.”

Oak Forest Mayor Hank Kuspa, left, and Terry Gray unveil a plaque April 9 after the city renamed the Oak Forest Animal Control & Care Center in honor of longtime volunteer Laura Gray, Terry Gray's wife who died less than two months earlier.  (Chrissy Maher)
Oak Forest Mayor Hank Kuspa, left, and Terry Gray unveil a plaque April 9 after the city renamed the Oak Forest Animal Control & Care Center in honor of longtime volunteer Laura Gray, Terry Gray’s wife who died less than two months earlier. (Chrissy Maher)

Kuspa said her compassion extended to children, schools and the whole neighborhood. But, he said, Gray could be a stickler for change she felt was needed.

“Back when I was elected (in 2009), she was a little critical of the new guy, which was me and which is okay,” said Kuspa. “I knew I had to prove myself to her.”

Early on, Gray persuaded Kuspa to meet with her and other residents to discuss how to bring GiGi’s Playhouse, a nonprofit for people with Down syndrome, to the city. They found a temporary site at a local church until money was raised for a permanent building in Tinley Park.

“That was Laura—that was her bringing people together,” said Kuspa, who’s late brother-in-law had Down syndrome.

Isenhart-Copp said the loss of her friend still sorrows. Even in the throes of cancer, Gray was there for her, continuing her volunteer work helping animals and meeting with Isenhart-Copp monthly to go to restaurants, museums and other events.

“Towards the end, she was getting tired, but it didn’t stop her,” Isenhart-Copp said. “She knew how to seize the day like no other person.

“It’s a major loss to animal welfare and the city.”

Janice Neumann is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.