The Loyola students were quiet as Shay Gray spoke about the four P’s that have defined his life: “Prayer, patience, persistence and perseverance.”
He’s been known to also talk about love and avoiding the Red Line, and he says a prayer before every trip.
While this man works for Loyola, he’s not a Jesuit or a professor.
He’s a shuttle bus driver who spends 12-hour days transporting students from the Lake Shore Campus to the Water Tower Campus as an employee of MV Transportation — which handles Loyola’s shuttle and 8-RIDE service.
While his job is to get students safely between the campuses, he sees it as something else too: connecting with the kids, giving them something positive to think about during the day and brightening their lives.
“You never know what they’re going through,” Gray said. “You never know if they’re getting peer pressure, pressure from home, pressure from being in school.”
He said he wants to make sure the students know he’s proud of them.
“I tell them how proud I am of them,” he said. “Every man and woman is distinguished by the choices they make and [they] have chosen to be respectable, responsible and productive citizens of a society, with a degree.”
But Gray calls himself a country boy at heart. Raised by his grandparents in Mississippi, he said he didn’t wear shoes until he was 12 years old.
“I was a barefooted country boy running around,” Gray said. “We had the little country churches grandma would take us to and you didn’t have to wear shoes. They didn’t care about how you were dressed as long as you were in the church.”
Now living in Chicago, Gray said he feels like a “celebrity.”
“I love what I do but to be appreciated for what you do is a whole new level,” the 61-year-old said. “You don’t just walk with your head held high — you walk with your chest up.”
Gray began driving Loyola shuttles in 2018 and said he jumped at the chance to work with college students because he used to be a teacher.
“When I first had the opportunity, I was elated because I had a chance to be with college students,” Gray said. “My mom is a retired schoolteacher, my grandma was a retired schoolteacher and I taught school for many years.”
After majoring in history and education at Jackson State University in Mississippi, he taught general education program and elementary school classes in Chicago Public Schools and in Texas before his first retirement in 2006, he said.
Stacei Allen, the MV Transportation general manager, said she remembers the first time she met Gray. He waved at her every morning through the windows of her office, and one day when she didn’t see his wave, she got a knock at the door instead, she said.
“He came in and said, ‘I always see you and I never come talk to you. I’m going to be your best driver,’” she said. “Since then, every morning he comes in to say, ‘Good morning, hello, how are you today?’ and no matter how busy you are, you’re going to smile and talk to him.”
Gray said he’s grateful his bosses are so supportive and allow him to do what he does.
“Without MV there would be no Shay Gray,” he said. “Without Gretchen, Mark Collins, Stacei Allens and Latoya Robinson, there is no Shay Gray.”
Gray briefly retired from driving last year and moved to Georgia but returned to Chicago to take care of his mother this fall after she had a stroke. He said he doesn’t see himself leaving again anytime soon.
“I’m going to be here until the wheels come off the bus because I can’t leave my mother,” Gray said. “I can’t take her away from her home. If it takes five, 10, 20 years, I’ll be here till God takes her home.”
Before he returned to Chicago and drove shuttles for Loyola, Gray spent seven years as a cross country truck driver and despite the occasional loneliness, he enjoyed it, he said.
“I loved it out there,” Gray said. “Your greatest friend, other than God, is yourself and if you aren’t friendly with you, you’ll be a wreck with everyone else. I needed that self-reflection.”
Eventually he said he was ready to stop and come home but wanted to keep busy, which is how he discovered shuttle driving, he said.
He remembers making his first announcement on his first shuttle drive in the fall of 2018.
“I stood up and I said, ‘Excuse me! Can I have everyone’s attention please?’ and they all got real quiet because usually drivers don’t talk to them,” Gray said. “My name is Shay Gray and I am your Loyola driver, the last shuttle leaves [at 12:10 p.m.] and I’ll be out here for the remainder of the year. I hope I don’t offend anybody, but may God bless us all.”
On that first day, a student approached him and thanked him for talking with them, Gray said. He said the personal connection is what makes this job worth it for Gray.
“[Coming to work] gives me relief,” he said. “When I come to work there’s a lot of joy. Kids always say things that make you go a step higher … and they hug you. Man, that’s the greatest feeling in the world. It makes it worth every mile, every step.”
Gray said his speeches began as announcements about the shuttle schedule, but they quickly grew because he enjoyed giving students “that inspiring word.”
Gray said students confide in him, and often stay on the shuttle to talk. He said a student once told him about his trouble with a class. Gray told him to get a tutor and talk to his professor, he said. Later, the student returned to update Gray.
“He came and told me he passed it,” Gray said. “He passed it with a C, but it was a joyful moment. And then for him to hug me like he did was an epic moment for me, too.”
Lily Buchen, a 19-year-old advertising and public relations major, said Gray once stopped at 7-Eleven during a trip downtown. He pulled over and ran in for 10 minutes, then returned with a Diet Pepsi and a snack, she said.
“He’s such a nice guy, he deserves to stop at 7-Eleven,” Buchen said. “I don’t think anyone was mad about it, it was just strange.”
She said she doesn’t remember him making any announcements at the time, but Gray said he told the riders they were welcome to run into 7-Eleven with him if they needed anything.
“I told them, ‘Y’all forgive me, I got to stop in here. … My headache is excruciating,’” Gray said. “They said, ‘Go ahead, Shay’ [and] I went in, came right out, got behind the wheel and pulled off.”
Before his retirement from driving early last year, Gray said he received gifts and cards from many students, including a gift basket and a card signed by the Loyola Cheer team.
Despite how much he enjoys the connection with the students, Gray stressed how he values safety above all else.
“The main thing here is safety,” Gray said. “I can talk and laugh with them all day, but when those parents send their kids to school … they’re looking for their babies to come back home. That’s how I drive that bus. From point A to point B, those are my grandbabies.”
Gray said he’s taught students the importance of “rocking and rolling” in the driver’s seat. This means looking left, looking right and checking the mirrors.
“Sometimes I get on the bus and I hear the guys and girls from the back yell ‘Shay Gray, let’s rock and roll,’” Gray said. “They remember.”