On Liberia’s Ebola Front Line

Lyn Howell Gray and other workersin Monrovia, Liberia.

Lyn Howell Gray, center, poses with colleagues from an aid group in Monrovia, Liberia.

By Laura Moyer

Lyn Howell Gray ’69 resisted leaving Liberia as the Ebola virus sickened West Africans in 2014.

Gray and her Liberian colleagues employed by an aid organization urged pragmatism, not panic. People could stay safe, they emphasized, by avoiding the person-to-person contacts that spread the virus, especially when caring for the sick or preparing bodies for burial.

But the aid organization insisted that its American employees return to Washington, D.C., because the epidemic had overtaken medical facilities and airlines were suspending service.

“Being forcibly evacuated was difficult because we had to desert our colleagues at such a bad time, and there was important work we could be doing,” Gray said. She and husband Jim left with a few hastily packed belongings, not knowing when or even if they’d be able to return to their home of many years.

As it turned out, they were absent only two months, returning when safe medical care and airline service could again be assured.

Ebola numbers were at their highest then, and Gray and her colleagues worked with nongovermental organizations to help community leaders correct citizens’ misunderstanding of the disease. Liberia has since been declared Ebola-free.

The Grays’ connection with the country goes back to the 1970s. After graduating from Mary Washington with a major in French, Lyn married Jim and completed a master’s degree in Russian and linguistics at Georgetown University. Then the couple left for the Peace Corps, teaching high school in rural Liberia for three years.

They were in their 20s, and the students they taught tended to be older than American high schoolers. The Grays supported three of them through university studies, forming lifelong friendships with those students.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the couple and son Rafael lived in both the U.S. and Africa. Lyn’s career included directing Peace Corps programs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) and Niger, and directing international programs at Virginia Tech.

Meanwhile, Liberia struggled through years of civil war, culminating in the forced exit and eventual imprisonment of dictator Charles Taylor. As peace resumed in the mid-2000s, the Grays returned to Liberia to help the country combat the lingering effects of war.

The Grays witnessed the 2005 election and 2011 re-election of Harvard-educated President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whom Lyn Gray considers the best leader Liberia has ever had. As Sirleaf steps down, they hope to witness a peaceful election and transfer of power.

Now semiretired, the Grays are building a home “upcountry,” away from the crowded capital, and expect to remain in Liberia for some years. Once they fully retire, they plan to return to the U.S. and live in Blacksburg.

The Grays are proud that son Rafa, now 35, has continued in their international footsteps including Peace Corps service of his own. And Lyn Gray is also thankful for her Mary Washington days, which led to fluency in French and helped prepare her for her life’s work.

“I think the best thing Mary Washington did for me, besides the French, was confidence,” she said. “I had to push myself. … I really got a much better idea of what I could do.”