Hall of Famer

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Roberta J.F. Wray recently was inducted into the Genesee Regional Women’s Hall of Fame for her lifetime commitment to making a difference.

Photo by Paul Janczewski

Attorney, former newscaster in select company of women

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Roberta J.F. Wray has crammed so many things into her life – including a name change – that it would take a book to tell her entire story. An article of this length just wouldn’t do her justice. But we’ll try.

In her 72 years, Wray has played piano and trombone. Dabbled in acting. And worked as Michigan’s first female broadcast photojournalist at several television stations.
As a reporter, she’s interviewed many local, state and national public figures, several of whom went on to become President of the United States. Wray has covered riots, fires, police matters and numerous court cases. She’s interviewed celebrities, ridden with the Blue Angels in acrobatic air shows, and walked on wings of smaller crafts at other air shows – twice!

Later in life, Wray graduated from law school, worked for a Genesee County firm, and served 11 years as a district court magistrate judge.

Oh, and she continues to write for the Genesee County Bar Association’s publication, The Bar Beat.

For all her accomplishments, Wray was recently honored with an induction into the Genesee Regional Women’s Hall of Fame. When she looks back on her life, Wray is somewhat taken aback by all the things she’s done, all that she’s accomplished.

“I’ve tried a whole bunch of things in my life,” she said, noting that her philosophy throughout has been to “try everything” within reach.

“If there’s something you want to do, find out about it and look for it. Try it, and when you find something you really want to do, do it,” she said. “My philosophy in life is you can do anything you put your mind to.”

She was born in 1940 as Roberta Jean Funsch in a community called Eldorado that doesn‘t even exist anymore, named after a Crawford County, Mich. post office that was decommissioned in 1952. Wray said it was just an old stagecoach stop halfway between Mio and Roscommon, with no stores and only a few houses. Her great-grandfather was the postmaster, and her grandmother took over the job after he died.

To entertain themselves, Wray and her younger brother, Russell, took care of farm duties, gardened, raised chickens, enjoyed two-person softball, and played in the surrounding woods.

At first, Wray thought she’d like to become a nurse, but gave that idea up when she ruined one of her dolls while playing nurse.

The family moved to Flint during World War II when her father, Robert, got a job at the AC plant as a bombsight inspector, moved back north after the war, but returned when he took the same job during the Korean War.

Wray was taking piano and trombone lessons, and continued those as she went through the Flint school system, graduating from Flint Central High School in 1958 with distinction. She thought of becoming a history or music teacher, but did not attend college immediately after high school.

She decided to become an actress, and worked in a local summer stock theater, but knew she’d have to get a real job to have something to fall back on. As a senior, she decided to alter her name. A year earlier, while with the camera club, her group visited a radio station, and upon hearing her name, Roberta Jean Funsch, a local deejay told her “it sounded like a mouthful of peanut butter.”

With a career goal as a writer, or actress, she combined her own name with a part from her grandmother’s maiden name, and selected Roberta J.F. Wray as her stage name a year later while working as an apprentice at a musical production in Clio. It was a name she used for years at TV 5 in Flint, and she legally changed it in 1992.
But dreams of being an actress soon faded. Wray was working at a music shop in Flint, and deejays would come in to buy records for dances, and one invited her to the studio to see the goings-on, and she began gathering news for him. He later let her write up news stories, which led to her being hired by a Lansing television station, where she was paid to shoot film.

“My Dad launched me on photography work,” she said, starting with her camera club exposure.

Next, Wray was hired at WNEM Channel 5 in Flint. She is widely believed to be the first female broadcast photojournalist in Michigan. Although it was a man’s world, Wray was not intimidated.

“Frankly, I didn’t think about it,” she said. “I liked what I was doing, taking pictures and talking to people, and I just had to prove myself to gain confidence.”

She developed a love and strong passion for it, hauling equipment, filming news events, mingling with police, firefighters, judges and lawyers and covering court proceedings.

But in the late 1980s, after a quarter-century in the business, Wray became discouraged with the profession, saying it became more about exploitation and entertainment than news, and decided to switch courses. Many people she had come to know over the years encouraged her to think about a career in law. So she buckled down and obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan-Flint.

Wray had been taking classes towards a degree on and off for years.

“There was a long time I didn’t think it was necessary,” she said. “I had a good job, and I loved what I was doing, but when I decided wanted to be a lawyer, I knew I had to finish my undergrad degree.”

In 1990, at the age of 50, Wray got her degree and started at Cooley Law School. Cashing out her retirement funds, Wray was now on a course toward a law degree and a career in constitutional law and civil rights.

She graduated in 1994, and worked briefly for a judge in Bay County as a law clerk before being hired by a Flint law firm. But she was mainly handling divorce matters, “and it was killing me,” she said. It just was not what she had envisioned for herself in law. Wray figured she was too old to start her own practice when an opening for a 67th District Court Magistrate Judge became available.

Officials were thrilled to have Wray. Despite her minimal legal background, “I had a lot of life experience,” she said. Besides, it didn’t hurt that nearly everyone in the legal community knew of Wray and her reputation from her news days.

“My reputation was one of fairness.”

Wray was named magistrate in 1997 and worked in the court post for 11 years, retiring in 2008.

 “What I enjoyed the most was working with young people,” she said. “I loved to give them little lectures from the bench.”

After retiring, Wray spent time traveling, being a caregiver to a close friend who later died, and writing frequently for the Genesee County Bar Association. She is currently working on three articles for the next publication. Wray never dreamed her career would be so diverse and encompassing.

“But it sure has been fun,” she said. “Looking forward, as an 18-year-old, I didn’t know what my life would look like. And looking back now, I had no idea it would be so varied. I got to do an awful lot of things that nobody ever gets to do.”

Such as flying with the Blue Angels. Wing-walking with a stunt air-show pilot. Interviewing Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy as he ran for Congress. Covering politics, riots, political and entertainment figures. Interviewing famed German rocket scientist Werner Von Braun. Getting her pilot’s license, logging about 150 hours of flight time, and teaching students basic ground instructions. Winning a UPI news reporting award in 1984, the Genesee County Historical Society’s Clarence M. Young History Writing award in 1989, and her nomination in 1989 for the Athena Award.

And now, the culmination of a career that is still going strong, induction into the Genesee Regional Women’s Hall of Fame. It’s presented by the Flint Zonta Club 1, a service organization for business and professional women that began in the 1920s. The Hall of Fame was only started several years ago. She was nominated for the achievements already mentioned, as well as her many community contributions to civic and charitable groups.

The Hall of Fame honors women in the community who have made a difference and changed the history of Genesee County in recognition of their accomplishments. The induction took place April 25 at the Flint Institute of Arts. Wray was one of six new honorees. Wray, a past president of the Zonta Club of Flint, is thrilled by her selection.

“I’m really gratified to be deemed worth of recognition,” she said. “There’s a tremendous group of women that are already in the Hall of Fame, and my co-inductees this year, many that I know and some long since dead, are wonderful. It’s nice to be recognized. And it feels validating. Being in that whole group of women is humbling.”
As a lawyer and magistrate, Wray wanted to be ethical, above board “and try not to disrespect the profession. And I think I accomplished that.”

Her future remains open. Wray will continue writing, travel and maybe write a biography or children’s books.

“I don’t know if it’ll get published, but it’s a way to occupy my time,” she said.

Wray said she was playing a role in all of her professions, from acting, news gathering, music playing, lawyering, judging, and all her other talents.

“Like Shakespeare said, ‘All the world’s a stage.’ And that pretty much sums it up. That‘s life. And I was playing a role.”