When Gray Little’s house was flooded with 3 feet of water, destroying valuables and many of his photographs from Hurricane Rita, he didn’t pack up and move. He simply went to work raising his house by 5 feet on levels and went on with life. That’s the same approach he takes at Sowela Technical Community College, where he is department chair for culinary, graphics and design arts. There have been challenges in the educational system — he will attest to that — but that hasn’t stopped him from making improvements in his departments or encouraging students in their work. (Rick Hickman / American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, February 02, 2013 9:47 PM
When Gray Little’s house was flooded with 3 feet of water, destroying valuables and many of his photographs from Hurricane Rita, he didn’t pack up and move. He simply went to work raising his house by 5 feet on levels and went on with life.
That’s the same approach he takes at Sowela Technical Community College, where he is department chair for culinary, graphics and design arts. There have been challenges in the educational system — he will attest to that — but that hasn’t stopped him from making improvements in his departments or encouraging students in their work.
“My love is out here with these students and working with them,” Little said, with a nod toward a nearby classroom. “The good thing about being department chair is I still get to do that. I get to help them and I help them develop their career, and that’s the good thing.”
A large part of Little’s career has revolved around the university system, where he has gone from taking instructions to giving them. But starting out, he didn’t have a solid understanding of what direction he wanted to go career-wise. A Lake Charles native, Little attended McNeese State University, where a growing interest in photography led him to find a job at the American Press near the end of his sophomore year.
His part-time position at the Press went from writing, and rewriting, obituaries to eventually doing photography. Little said he first formed an interest in photography when he was in high school because it was a “great way to meet girls.” But what started out as a way to snag a date would eventually end up changing his career path. To work his way up to the photography department Little spent time with the other photographers — asking questions, observing and trying to learn as much about the art of taking photos as he could.
Little worked for the newspaper until he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in pre-law in the mid-1970s. With no photography program available, and still not quite sure what he wanted to do professionally, he went in the law direction because of an interest in history and the government.
After graduating, he married and moved to New Orleans with his new wife. There he found a job at two different companies developing film. Little remembers Monday mornings where they would develop about 3,000 rolls of film. While the job wasn’t exactly fulfilling, the recent college grad was developing a growing interest in not only photography but in technology in general.
After working in New Orleans for three years, Little and his wife moved back to Lake Charles, where he opened his own photo studio — Lake Charles Photo — and knew he had finally found something he truly enjoyed doing. For 10 years he enveloped himself in the world of photography, even setting up the first overnight color photo lab in town before he was offered a chance to expand his experience as a photographer at McNeese in the early ’80s. Back in the university system, he traveled with the basketball and baseball teams, was the go-to person for student yearbook photos, the university’s newspaper and any other campus job that required a lens and a shutter.
Carolyn Moffet Shank, a former director for McNeese Media Services, attested to Gray’s hard work and dependability when she worked with him during the ’80s and ’90s.
“I’ve known Gray for years and have always known him as the photographer we assigned everything to,” she said. “He’s the kind of guy that would be reliable and dependable and would be there when you needed him,” she said.
Putting in long hours as a photographer for the university was a task Little relished. For 15 years he was able to capture students and their surroundings in his own way. During this time Little found his passion for photography and guiding students was a direction in which he wanted to continue. He began to work on his master’s degree in educational technology — a move that eventually helped propel him further into the higher education system.
“I think probably more news and sports events have passed through his camera lens than anybody working now,” said Brett Downer, a longtime friend. “He is as talented as a photographer as he is a teacher.”
Gray said that even though he enjoyed his job he was “starving to death” and, with his master’s degree finished, decided to go into business for himself. However, Little barely had time to pull out his camera before he was offered a position at Sowela as a photography instructor. A former student at McNeese who was then working at Sowela found the graphic arts department was looking for a new teacher. Interested, Little applied for the position. Gerry Hebert Spell, then head of the graphic art department, recognized Little’s talent for photography and knew she wanted him to be a part of Sowela.
“He was a blessing to me, and when he came in he knew so much about photography,” Spell said. “He’s a good guy who listens carefully to what people have to say; he listens to the students and knows his subject matter well.”
Gray was soon settling into the routine of working at the technical community college. He was making enough money that he didn’t need to think about running his photography business on the side, and in the classroom he was helping students progress by leaps and bounds.
His first year there, the college won seven of the American Advertising Federation-sponsored ADDY Awards in the district — something never before accomplished at Sowela.
“Coming here I didn’t realize I had such a passion for teaching, but when I walked in the door I said this is for me,” Little said. “If you find you don’t have a passion for something it doesn’t matter how old you are (when you) change directions. Life’s too short; find yourself something you like to do and do it.”
Even with less time for his own photography, Little was still successful with the photos he had taken. He has won photo competitions, several gold and silver ADDY Awards, and photographed the album cover for a local band.
Little progressed with students, whether it was in helping them find jobs or improving technology needs on campus. He has led students not only to winning on the state level for their ADDYs but has also brought several to the national level, which resulted in both bronze and gold medals.
During the first five years of working at Sowela, the graphic arts department encountered various changes. Spell left her position, which was filled by several people for a time. At his five-year service mark, Little applied for the position and became what was later called the department chair. After his appointment, the college’s chancellor decided to merge the culinary and design departments with graphics. Little had to reapply for his updated position, was rehired and began work over the newly consolidated departments.
Little said his job went from being hands-on in the classroom to a lot of paperwork. Even with the increased time spent at his desk handling the departments he took his new position as a way to make change and improvements.
Eric Jessen, a former student of Little’s, progressed from learning in Little’s classes to working alongside him as a graphic arts instructor and program coordinator at Sowela. His work has provided testimony to his former instructor’s influence on campus.
“Gray has always been very knowledgeable with his craft with photo and video,” he said. “He was a great teacher and is an equally great boss. His priority was always on bettering the department through technology and advancements.”
Little brought more technology, such as graphic-design programs, into the classrooms and made sure students were getting the most out of their classes. The department soon grew. The former culinary department, which Little said had low enrollment, exceeded 100 students in the program.
Little said some of the biggest challenges he faced included state budget cuts. After spending almost 30 years between McNeese and Sowela, he said he couldn’t remember a year when there wasn’t some kind of monetary subtraction taking place. Those setbacks were frustrating for someone dedicated to ensuring a better education for students.
“Sowela is really a great school. I think it’s been underserved by the state. You can look at our facilities — you walk on this campus and you look at the buildings and you wonder why anyone would want to come here,” he said. “But when you come in and you go to the classes and you see what’s going on here, we just have so much to offer.”
Little said he grappled with these issues by setting five-year plans with goals for what he wanted for the university and a visual blueprint of the best way to get there. If plans didn’t work out one year, he said he simply set that as a goal for the next year. One major challenge Little said he faced was when Hurricane Rita hit in 2005. Both his house and his department’s building were damaged. His house was flooded, trees had fallen on the roof and many of his photos washed away.
Little didn’t back down from this challenge. He tore down his house and rebuilt it 5 feet off the ground. At the college, his department moved into modular buildings in the parking lot for four years, only to upgrade to a renovated aircraft hangar. This past school year, Little was finally rewarded when his department was moved to a new building.
This year, Little has a new set of goals. There are ADDYs to win, classes to fill and preparations for Skills USA. Still a fixture in the classroom, Little has continued to teach a photography and an InDesign course. He is also working on getting the culinary department certified by the American Culinary Federation — something he and his department have worked on for about a year.
With almost 15 years working at Sowela, Little knows what works and what doesn’t as well as what the students need. He said he is not yet ready to leave his students for retirement.
“It comes down to trying to find something you like to do and following your passion,” Little said. “I changed my direction. I went from doing photography to being a teacher in the middle of my career; it was a great change. I can’t leave these students behind. They keep me going.”