For years, he toiled out of the limelight, quietly building two high-tech companies that eventually sold for tens of millions. Now, Gary S. Murray Sr. -- entrepreneur, accountant, car aficionado and community philanthropist -- is entering a new phase. He's done well. Now he wants to do a lot of good.
Although Murray has lived in Prince George's since 1974, he is not exactly a household name. That, it appears, is about to change -- much to his dismay, he insists.
"I'm not looking to bring any notice to myself; that's why I shy away from these articles," Murray said in the first of several conversations for this article. "I do things I do because my heart tells me to."
The things that are turning this intensely private person into a public figure include his appointment to the governor-elect's transition team and, before that, his active participation in this fall's campaigns, providing funds, office space and even an organization to boost like-minded candidates.
"I would hope, if anything, I'm an encourager," Murray said. "If I'm not known, I'm totally happy, because I'm not doing this for me. The things I do in the community are for others."
John Lally, an Upper Marlboro lawyer and longtime observer of the local political scene, said that Murray's increasing public service role is to be expected. "It's what rich guys do when they make a lot of money, go off and do good," he said.
To others, Murray is a paradox. There's the modest self-effacing guy who bought a basic 1953 Cape Cod, where he keeps his old pickup and '64 Mustang just because it reminds him of the first house he and his wife lived in. Then there's the grandiose Murray who lives in a Mississippi-style manor house he built smack in the middle of Prince George's County, a man who is emblematic of African American success living in a lavishly landscaped Southern plantation mansion.
Whatever Murray is, he's clearly his own man. This year, he created his own political organization, We the People, with the goal of forcing candidates within the county to focus on issues, not on their own political futures.
A Democrat, he backed a losing candidate for county executive (Major Riddick) but a winner, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for governor. On Ehrlich's transition team, he is reviewing agencies affecting business, housing and community development.
He's also chairman of the county's economic development corporation -- where he was instrumental in creating the Prince George's High-Tech Council -- and sits on several other community boards, including the school system's business advisory committee.
Although he could have retired from business after selling off his two high-tech firms, he instead formed a venture capital company, HumanVision in New Carrollton, that seeks to invest in small but promising startup companies.
In 2000, the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce named him its business leader of the year.
"All he talked about was how important his family was, his religion, and how he wanted to help other people be successful," said Douglas J.J. Peters, then chamber president and now a County Council member from Bowie.
Murray also has emerged as one of the first among the county's newly affluent black majority to invest big bucks here in development: Murray and real estate developer Kenneth Michael have plans for a large tract at Route 301 and Central Avenue. Murray is the majority partner in the mixed-use project.
Is this guy for real?
"He says he doesn't like the limelight. I truly believe him," said Audrey E. Scott, the former County Council member who ran as the Republican candidate for county executive. "Right now, he's definitely a player. It seems when he takes risks, they seem to pay off. I mean who else in Prince George's County was backing Bobby? [Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich]? Me and Gary Murray."
Joseph J. James, executive director of the economic development corporation that Murray chairs, said, "He's also very committed to Prince George's County, and, given his personal wealth, he can choose to live anywhere in the world he might want to live."
But Murray is homegrown, a native Washingtonian, and passionate about Prince George's and its potential, though he is not blind to its problems.
"I think it's one of the greatest places to be in America," he said. In his view, 80 percent to 90 percent of the county's problems occur in 5 percent or 10 percent of its area, yet that "weakest link" is "defining the entire county. . . . That's the image of Prince George's County."
He thinks that's unfair and hurts not only Prince George's, but also "our region, quite frankly."
On the other hand, he said, he would rather that its residents focus less on promoting an upscale image. "I don't think we should be defined by where we shop or what we own," he said, "but by the content of our character, by how people take care of each other, by how we educate our kids."
Education, he said, is his top priority for the county. "We believe education is the centerpiece, and we as a community are coalesced around that."
Riddick said Murray has played a behind-the-scenes role in uniting often fractious leaders in the county. "Where there's a splintering or fraying of relationships, he's tried to sit people down and bring them together," Riddick said. "He does a good job on that kind of consensus building." On some economic development issues, Riddick said Murray smoothed over differences between former county executive Wayne K. Curry and other unnamed officials. Murray declined to be more specific.
Murray grew up in the Petworth neighborhood in Northwest Washington. His father built and remodeled homes, and Murray worked with him. A 1974 graduate of Howard University, Murray and his wife of 30 years, Areather, have three children, two of them grown and working in Murray-spawned businesses.
At 52, the Mitchellville man with the homespun values has also accumulated impressive assets: eight or nine cars (he is unsure of the number) and a custom-built home in the gated community of Woodmore that is inspired by an 1820 plantation manor on the Mississippi River.
If it sounds like some kind of a statement for him to build and live in a Southern plantation house, he says it's merely because he likes houses -- his brother is an architect and his father was a builder -- and this one was "tried and true."
"My wife and I both like tall ceilings," he said.
Murray has always been interested in how things are put together -- and come apart -- and early on tinkered with televisions and cars. His fleet includes a 1964 Mustang, a Nissan pickup a 25-foot custom bus and a Mercedes.
"Some people like golf or tennis or extreme sports. Mine are mechanical things, and driving," he said. He used to make models; a glass case in his office conference room contains 25 or so miniatures people have given him.
After receiving an accounting degree, Murray went to work for Ernst & Young while he and his family lived in a modest subdivision off Brown Station Road near Upper Marlboro. It was there, in the late 1980s, that he took on a small public role in successfully opposing a proposed incinerator. Years later, his activism against drag racing in New Carrollton led to speed bumps that ended it.
In 1987, he formed Sylvest Management Systems, a technology services firm whose name derives from his middle name, Sylvester. The firm, which he located in the county, benefited from minority set-aside contracts with federal agencies, to which it sold computer equipment. But it soon outgrew the program. In 1997, he sold the company, which by then had annual revenues exceeding $100 million, for an undisclosed amount. Murray and a partner held onto one Sylvester division. In 2000, they sold it for $150 million.
Murray has quietly used his wealth to fund a number of charities, which he is reluctant to identify.
By offering to be a "significant sponsor," James said Murray also was instrumental in helping to bring the American Tennis Association national championships here in August. The association of black tennis players has since opened its national office in the county.
Moreover, James said of Murray, "he's funded workshops, seminars, teacher awards, all kinds of things related to education." When pressed, Murray says he gave $50,000 to Bladensburg High School for an after-school teacher and student academy. But he offers few other specifics about his donations.
At least as important, he said, are his non-monetary contributions, such as bringing a business class from Fairmont Heights High School to his office for lunch and speakers, himself included, on real-life issues.
In 1999, Murray bought a New Carrollton office building, the Treetops, which houses several Murray enterprises, including his wife's limousine company, Magnolia Coach, and HumanVision, his venture capital company. He speaks excitedly of his latest large-scale project: He wants to put together a real estate fund to buy or build office buildings from Boston to Washington and then, eventually, sell them.
The door to Murray's office suite lists no fewer than 10 entities. Last on the list is We the People, the nonprofit corporation he formed and funded with $200,000 this year to become a force in the county.
Murray said he created the organization "to inform and engage our community on pertinent issues." A group of people he declined to identify decided to endorse candidates under the We the People banner. "We were looking for people with a unity of purpose on education, to focus on what's right for the county rather than who is right. There was a sense that many of our representatives weren't representing us, they were representing the internal circle rather than the people themselves."
We the People got off to a less than stellar start in the primary, as most of its candidates went down in defeat. The biggest We the People loser was Riddick, the former gubernatorial chief of staff, who came in last in the five-way primary race for county executive. Murray also gave $2,000 directly, plus $12,000 through his various business entities, to the Riddick campaign.
But Murray and Riddick both consider the effort a success. "Many of the candidates had never been challenged before," Murray said. "We all won in that process."
After the election, Murray said he received calls from politicians who were interested in working with him and his group. "The answer is yes, so long as we are all focused on what's important to the whole community. This was not about getting mad at somebody but getting to the right answer."
Murray said he thought Riddick's skills as a "fiscal manager" made him best suited for these "tight financial times." Riddick now works out of Murray's suite of offices on joint ventures related to government and technology.
"We the People," Murray said, "wasn't created just for the election. It [just] happened to come together at that time."
Murray has yet to put together a board of directors. "We're still in the formative stages," he said, adding, "It would be wrong of me to lay out an agenda. We've been talking to people we know, asking, is it a useful tool? If we hear it's a waste of time, we'll let it stay dormant."
Murray met Ehrlich less than two years ago when the Republican congressman from Baltimore County was trying to learn more about the state from the suburban Washington view. In addition to a $4,000 campaign contribution, Murray donated office space at Treetops to the Ehrlich campaign.
On the transition team, Murray said, he is also reviewing state departments to see what can be done to deal with the soaring state budget shortfall. "We're looking at how we can save money without hurting people."
"I don't see problems as obstacles," Murray said, "but as opportunities."