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Old Saybrook history buff Laura Parker Gray stands in front of the 1853 map of Saybrook (which then included Essex and deep River) at Town Hall. (Photo by David Gray )
Asked how she has time for everything she does, Laura Parker Gray explains that she doesn’t watch television.
“People ask me when I sleep and I feel like saying, ‘While you’re up watching sitcoms...’” she says. “I mean, my husband and I are early to bed, early to rise.”
Her husband, David Gray, “is a rower,” she says. “He has a racing rowing shell on the top of his car almost every single day...So he’s up early, I’m up early. I usually go out walking or I go paddle boarding. Or I go for a bike ride. But we just like to get up and go.”
Laura, who lives in Old Saybrook and has a degree in chemistry from UConn, taught high school in New Milford for two years right out of college, then turned to sales.
“I worked for a chemical company, and I sold chemicals,” she says. “And then I moved into biotech. And I sold molecular biology and cloning [products] when cloning was really big...I’ve stayed in the same field, but I’ve switched companies a few times.
“Then I started selling instrumentation” that scientists use for research. “[P]harmaceutical companies, biotech companies, academic labs, environmental labs. And now I’m working for a company that sells the instruments and reagents for DNA sequencing.”
That company, Illumina, created the “instrument that sequenced the mysterious virus in China,” she says with obvious pride.
“[W]hen the Chinese sequenced the virus [with the instrument] and compared it to the worldwide database, they could see it was a coronavirus, but they could also see that it was new,” she continues. “It was the novel coronavirus.”
Thanks to that same coronavirus, Laura is not traveling as she used to, instead relying on technology to connect with clients.
“[I]t’s usually a go-out-and-meet-customers type of job, build rapport, and you start talking to people about their projects and how we can help them find their answers,” she explains. “[B]ut I’ve been working from home since mid-March.
“I’m a real people person,” she continues. “I’ve always worked from home because my companies are typically based in California, but now to be home every single day and all day long...it’s different. [I] just don’t have that connection that I normally had in previous jobs. And this job is new—I started this job at the end of January. So it’s been really challenging because I have new customers, and I haven’t been able to meet with them in person and develop that necessary trust as a consultant.”
Historic Old Saybrook
Laura makes use of technology to connect to and inform her community. In December of last year, she created the Facebook page Historic Old Saybrook, CT to share her fascination with reminders of the town’s past.
“I’ve always loved walking around town,” she says.
In 1996, she and her husband bought an 1805 house in North Cove and restored it.
“I watched my husband, who’s a boat builder at Pilots Point Marina, rebuild this house and turn it into this pretty little place,” she says. It’s “energy efficient. He is a perfectionist, a great woodworker, and I just developed an appreciation for antique houses and restoration.”
While on a walk around town after a light snowfall last December, Laura took photos of the older homes on Main Street, Pennywise Lane, and Old Boston Post Road. When she got home, she posted them on an Old Saybrook Facebook page.
“And people went crazy,” she says. “There are a lot of people who no longer live here who are on that page who were really hungry to see how the town looks now and to remember the places.
“So I was asked, ‘Can you make this shareable?’,” she recalls.
But she couldn’t, because the Facebook page was a closed group. So she created a new page focused on town history.
Within a couple of weeks, the page had 100 members. Not quite a year later, it has more than 1,100 members.
Having served on the town’s Historic District Commission, Laura knows where to find town historic surveys online. She uses that information to tell the stories of the houses and those who lived in them.
“I created a new kind of digital inventory of the old houses in town,” she says. “And I would post my own photographs of how they look now.”
There’s plenty of discussion on the page, too, with members posting their own photographs and postcards as well as asking and answering questions.
Through her research, Laura learned and shared information about the Niantics, the Native American tribe that lived in the area.
“They were given a reservation at Black Point,” she says. “And then, in the 1800s, the State of Connecticut declared them an extinct tribe because they wanted the land.
“I try to keep it non-political,” she says. “And I don’t want politics on the page because I don’t want the conversation to devolve into politics. I was so tired of that. But people appreciated the information about the Native Americans because they didn’t know.”
Laura has explored a little of the history of Lion Gardiner as well as George Fenwick.
“I have to tell the story about Yale College,” she says, “because people don’t know that Yale College started here” in Old Saybrook.
Citizens’ Police Review
Another Facebook page Laura helps to manage is the Old Saybrook Citizens’ Police review, which has 267 followers, a group she says is bipartisan.
“Our goal is to bring democratic principles to the police commission and to the police department,” she explains. “[T]hose democratic principles that are missing are...accountability, transparency, accessibility, and oversight.”
On Oct. 26, she attended her first police commission meeting, conducted via Zoom. She was one of 100 viewers, the maximum number the commission allows to participate. (The meetings are recorded and posted on YouTube afterwards.)
“[W]e need a cultural shift in the police department,” she says. “In Old Saybrook, [the police are] heavy handed. And they have affected a lot of people’s lives in town. They don’t care who you are. I think they violate civil rights, from some of the videos I’ve seen.
“They have full authority to arrest whoever they want,” she continues. “And then it’s up to us to defend ourselves and get charges dropped. So I feel like we could do a good job trying to reel in the police department.”
Laura was among those disheartened by the Oct. 10 Facebook account by Rebecca Roy, a Maine resident who was staying at a beach cottage in Saybrook with her mother and brother, C.J., who has Down syndrome. Just as they were about to have lunch, the police arrived at their cottage and questioned her family about a stolen street sign. Roy felt strongly that the police were accusatory toward her brother and unconcerned about the effect they could have on a young man with developmental disabilities.
“I don’t believe [Old Saybrook Police Chief Michael A. Spera] understands how to recognize somebody who is mentally impaired,” Laura says. “And that’s why I said at [the Oct. 26 police commission] meeting that mental impairment could be drug- or disease-induced.”
The police “need to approach people who are mentally impaired with some sort of compassion until they understand what the situation is,” she continues. “We saw how that backfired. We saw how they didn’t do that when they interacted with C.J. Roy.”
Laura is angry that Spera has refused to release body and vehicle camera footage of the incident; he claims it was an “uncorroborated allegation.” A video called OSPD Air Freshener Heroes that surfaced on YouTube in June was met with outrage from many members of the community, who felt that Spera and officers needlessly escalated a minor incident. They frisked a young man for putting his hand in his pocket, handcuffed him, and told him he had been pulled over because he had an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. It has been alleged that the incident was racially motivated, as the young man was Latino. According to YouTube, the video has had 9.9 thousand views.
“[T]hey think that this is policing,” Laura says. “And we think this is outrageous. And somehow, we have to bring these two worlds together. And so what I’d like to see as part of the citizens’ police review is a push for community policing.”
Laura traveled with a group of women to the U.S.-Mexico border last year and has spoken at churches, synagogues, libraries, and rallies locally and across Connecticut about her experience there and what she learned.
“We were in Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Arizona, and Tucson, Arizona, and we saw first hand people waiting in line to be fed in Mexico at soup kitchens,” she remembers.
The towns by the same name in Mexico and Arizona are a little more than three miles apart.
“We saw that they were staying in these rudimentary shelters in Mexico as they waited for their number to be called by U.S. immigration,” she continues.
Some of the families were staying in a “300-bed shelter in Tucson,” Laura says. “It was in a converted monastery that had been abandoned by the nuns when their numbers dwindled out.”
Her group handed out “little books and toys, little trinkets for the kids who were waiting in line at one of the soup kitchens,” she continues.
“And then we also learned what it meant to enter the United States through an unofficial border crossing, where there was no border wall,” she says. “And that was through the desert. We actually walked in the desert with some of the Samaritan organizations that had sprung up in the Tucson sector...to help the migrants because they were dying of exposure in the desert.
“[S]ince they started keeping track in 1999...over 3,000 people have died in the southern Arizona desert,” she says. “So we walked on what were believed to be the migrant trails, and we put out gallons of water.”
Though more than a year has passed, talking about this has Laura in tears.
“We found human remains,” she says.
“We went out with a gentleman who is in his 70s,” she continues. “It was his mission to honor the brave people who have perished in the desert. So we went out with him and we planted crosses. I think we planted three crosses with him one day.”
In July 2019, Laura spoke at a Lights for Liberty rally in Norwich, one of a host of national vigils and protests against the mistreatment of immigrants in border detention centers. In September of that year, she addressed a We the People rally in New London and in January 2020, spoke at the Women’s March in Haddam.
“I’m going to use my white privilege” for the benefit of others, she says. “I grew up in Greenwich. My parents belonged to yacht clubs, and tennis clubs, and golf clubs, but I’m going to use my strength and my stature—I’m 5’10—and my voice to speak up for people who have no voice.”