We don’t do obituaries. But on a rare occasion we have done a remembrance—if we’ve known someone very well for a long time, if that person has been a great loss to the community, and if we have a treasure trove of anecdotes about him (or her). Malcolm Pray more than qualifies. No question, Malcolm Pray was extremely successful with his automobile dealership, but that tells only a part of his story. It is how much he had given back for which he will be remembered.
His sister, Sandra Culbert, says his infatuation with cars began at a tender age. Their mother, she remembered, had decorated his bedroom with handsome wallpaper, but Malcolm soon had covered it entirely with an array of car pictures along with one of Veronica Lake. “One of the biggest events in Malcolm’s life was learning to drive at the age of nine on the old dirt roads in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, at their grandfather Pray’s farmhouse,” she says. “He took to the car wheel naturally, like it was born in him.” Cars soon became his lifelong passion.
School wasn’t his passion. Most people never knew that Malcolm was dyslexic and a bit of a rebel in his youth. While he attended Brunswick and the University of Virginia, he failed to graduate from either. His dyslexia, an unrecognized condition in those days, resulted in an inability to handle foreign languages. His wife Natalie had to translate French menus for him. Brunswick’s headmaster Alfred Everett declared that of all his students, Malcolm was the least likely to succeed. Many years later Brunswick offered him an honorary degree. “That’s nice,” commented Malcolm, when he got the news. “They must want a new library.”
Malcolm always said that even though he didn’t get a degree from the University of Virginia, he came away with an appreciation for the honor system. Honesty and integrity became guideposts of his life and business career. Visitors to the Pray Achievement Center in Banksville marvel at his incredible collection of classic and antique cars. He offered personally guided tours as a special reward for donations to our numerous charities. His knowledge of automobiles was impressive and his enthusiasm infectious.
He also kept his memorabilia here going back to boyhood, all neatly labeled and documented in glass cases. There are years of car magazines with testimonials to his auto industry leadership and endless awards displayed for cars he entered in Concours d’Elegance events. Dedicated to all things Greenwich, he even had every issue ever published of the Nutmegger and Greenwich magazines.
He was immensely proud of his car collection and even carried photos in his breast pocket producing them with the least provocation. But he created the Pray Achievement Center to serve a much higher mission: “to teach entrepreneurship to young people.” Over the years, he led tours for some 7,000 school children, most from underprivileged areas. They were allowed to sit behind the wheel, and he then told them that there was nothing they couldn’t achieve if they really wanted to and offered advice on how they too could become a millionaire. “Learn to sell yourself,” he said, “because no matter what you do in life, you will be in the people business.” The kids went away starry eyed. He wanted his greatest legacy to be inspiring them to seek higher goals.
Malcolm was the most organized person in the world, notes Natalie. Every morning, often after they finished a round of tennis, he would lay out the day’s projects and schedule. He never wasted a minute. Always direct and highly focused, he had no small talk and some found him brusque. Yet he had the fine-tuned instincts of an exceptional salesman. Though a man of strong opinions, if you disagreed with him, he didn’t argue. He just shrugged his shoulders, looked at you like you were some kind of idiot and changed the subject. When the Harpoon Club committee asked this prospective Fall Guy if it was true that he had no sense of humor, he replied: “Oh, yes, I have a sense of humor. I just don’t think very many things are funny.” Yet he contributed to one of the most entertaining Harpoon evenings ever.
Malcolm Pray was a very complex individual. The excellent biography by Jim Keogh was entitled One of a Kind, and he was certainly that. His loyalty and generosity to friends and family were legendary. He was extremely considerate and gave his time and money without seeking credit. Scouting was one of his lifelong interests. His good friend Walter Stratton recounts how he lobbied the board of the Boy Scouts Council of Greenwich behind the scenes to prevent a proposed merger with the Stamford council that might well have resulted in the sale of all or part of the priceless Seton Reservation.
He was Mr. Republican. At their wedding at the First Presbyterian Church, Natalie was presented to Malcolm by her old friend Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. As Natalie observes, she went up the aisle with a Democratic icon and came back down on the arm of a Republican icon—a truly bipartisan arrangement and possibly the only one Malcolm ever subscribed to.
An ardent patriot, he never missed a Memorial Day parade in Old Greenwich, where he chauffeured the veterans of honor in the back of his vintage white Cadillac convertible and was ever present on the dais before town hall for the 4th of July celebration. Ever present also was an American flag in his lapel. Once arriving at an event and realizing he forgot it, he went right back home to get one. After that, to make sure he wouldn’t forget, he pinned a flag on every one of his jackets.
Family and friends meant everything to Malcolm. He would go out of his way to help people he didn’t even know. How well we remember the day we launched Westport magazine. Malcolm had generously offered to transport his Model A convertible to Westport for the Memorial Day parade where we festooned it with banners announcing our new magazine. Never mind it was pouring rain. Malcolm was driving with the top down, our editor and publisher getting drenched in back, Natalie beside him with a small umbrella mostly diverting the rain to Malcolm. If that wasn’t enough, the old Model A was overheating. With rain coming down and steam coming up, it was a miracle they made it to the end.
A turning point in Malcolm’s life was the tragic death of his only son at age seventeen in a car crash. While he gave the Malcolm S. Pray III building at the Boy Scouts Seton Reservation in his memory, he seldom talked about the accident. However, unbeknownst to anyone except Natalie, every year on the anniversary of his son’s death he would arise at 3:00 a.m., silently leave the house and go to the stone wall where his son met his end. It’s easy to conclude that Malcolm’s dedication to helping young people was emotional therapy for him.
Last August he was scheduled for open-heart surgery to a fix a heart valve. Two days earlier he got word that his good friend Rick Scott, governor of Florida, would be in Greenwich. “We will just postpone the surgery,” Malcolm said to Natalie, “and we’ll have a dinner party for twenty in his honor.” In spite of her ardent pleas to dissuade him, nothing so insignificant as open-heart surgery was going to get in his way. As it turned out, the operation was a success, but a week later he suffered a fatal stroke.
Malcolm Pray, a giant figure in the life of Greenwich, will long be remembered for all he did for our town and its many charitable organizations, for how much he meant to his family and friends, and by legions of young children who are growing up with his encouragement ringing in their ears.