BY 6 A.M., THE TWO swimming pools at the Calgary Eau Claire YMCA are churning with enthusiastic crawlers and backstrokers and bobbing aquasizers. In the far lane, a barrel-chested swimmer wearing black goggles is already doggedly doing laps, sometimes veering a bit too close to the side of the pool but never breaking his steady pace. Half an hour later, 60 lengths completed, the swimmer, aka Jim Gray, oilpatch oligarch and philanthropist extraordinaire, hauls himself out of the water, his faded strawberry-blond hair plastered to his head. The 65-year-old's ambition is to swim across Canada—figuratively, that is—a project he started in 1993, doing 1.5 km daily. "This is my little game," says Gray, a geologist who 25 years ago co-founded Canadian Hunter Exploration Ltd. and built it into one of the West's premier oil and gas companies. By New Year's, following the route of the Trans-Canada Highway, the irrepressible Gray expects to reach Moosomin, Sask., 20 km west of the Manitoba border. He figures it will take merely 11 more years to reach Halifax.
Gray's enthusiasms are legion, bounding well beyond the waters of the Y. He is a Calgary booster nonpareil, whose civic-mindedness was saluted this year by the prestigious national Public Policy Forum at its annual dinner. He has raised funds for schools for children with special needs, supported an emergency women's shelter, assisted the cause of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) sufferers, and secured money to build new YMCAs. At one point, Gray even successfully lobbied to change the color of Calgary's buses, believing bold colors would boost the city's morale. "That is not something I put on my CV," he chuckles, adding his intention, always, is to improve the quality of life in the city where he has lived with his wife, Josie, and three children, now grown, for 41 years. "I don't think of myself as a dogooder," says the Order of Canada recipient, with characteristic modesty. "I just understand the value of community
work and I get a great deal of enjoyment out of helping."
His benevolence and indefatigable efforts to better Calgary—he's co-chair of the Calgary Economic Development Authority—have made Gray a household name in the thriving oil and gas city. This year he lent his prominence to fighting video lottery terminals, believing gambling of this type can lead to terrible social ills. "I wanted to drive this issue onto the public agenda," he says. And he did, gleaning 123,870 signatures and forcing it onto municipal election ballots last fall. Albertans voted to keep VLTs, but Gray insists
he'll keep fighting. "Gambling," he argues, "is a seminal qualityof-life issue."
In June, Gray stepped away from running Canadian Hunter, while keeping the chairman's title. He insists he has not retired— the time once devoted to his company will now be even more absorbed by community work, like the annual dinner he started in 1995 to raise funds for the city's largest emergency women's shelter. "Without Jim we wouldn't be here," says the shelter's executive director, Karen Blase. "I can't say enough about him,"
adds Janice McTighe, who runs Renfrew Educational Services, a school for special needs children. "He has such a big heart."
Lately that generosity has led Gray to take a young person, someone under the age of 30, out to lunch every month. "They drive you to think new things," he says. "They are much less cynical, less likely to think in a box." Opening his mind to new ideas is something Gray, the gracious altruist, can never resist.
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