In 2016, Gale McCray, like most Americans, was so positive the electorate would never fall for the demagogic mutterings of a former reality TV star that when his daughter accepted his bet that Trump would lose, he was totally in. Mind you, it’s not as if he wanted to take money from his own daughter exactly, but as an experienced gambler, he could not resist the temptation. To be honest, he didn’t think it was much of a gamble. To him, it was such a sure thing. But we all know how that turned out.
After that fateful November 8, Gale, lighter by $100, cogitated over his and the country’s loss. First, he tried to talk to his Congressional representative, Kay Granger. After speaking to someone in her office who didn’t seem to care, or even listen to his concerns, he knew another approach was needed.
He thought back to a Middle Eastern man he’d seen back in the early 2000s who held a sign on I-20 and Hulen Street when the case for the war against Iraq was being made. Gale remembered being so impressed by the quiet resolve in the man’s demeanor. He looked like he knew he was licked before he even got started, but he was going to do it anyway. Also, Gale had caught a short clip of legendary folk singer Pete Seeger protesting by himself, braving the elements and bone-chilling cold of New England. Those examples impressed him, stuck with him, but he was still faced with the big question: What could he do, one old man in Fort Worth, Texas, that would be the equal of those examples?
Then the inspiration came. Gale made a double-sided sign and put on it in big bold letters: “Trump –– That Boy Don’t Act Right.” As a native Oklahoman, he felt it had the right homespun ring to it and conveyed his and most of the country’s own gobsmacked feelings. And, as a longtime baseball fan, he’d seen signs out in center field that couldn’t be read, so he made sure the letters were big enough for everyone to see, even from a distance.
Then he went out to the corner of Hulen and Granbury Road and held his sign. It was not the usual kind of signs we’ve become all but numb to seeing at major intersections throughout the country in the second decade of the 21st century: desperate men and women holding makeshift cardboard signs asking for handouts. This one had a timely political message delivered with folksy humor.
So there stood 6-foot, broad-shouldered Gale McCray, a sight to behold, with a full beard and a baseball cap, looking, in his own words, “like any old Texas redneck,” or maybe a combination of Jerry Garcia and Walt Whitman. Among the passing SUVs, pick-up trucks, and cars spewing exhaust fumes, Gale persevered despite multiple middle-finger salutes and even one older woman slowing down to convey a very special message. “You’re stupid!” she yelled out her window to him. A friend joined him the last hour, plus there were thumbs-up signs and horns honked in agreement, even in deep red Tarrant County.
The former letter carrier, recreational therapist, and school bus driver made clear, “I wouldn’t have done this against any other Republican president. I might disagree with them, but Trump is something special. He’s the craziest president ever. Hell, I thought he was done for when he put down a former prisoner of war,” referring to the late Sen. John McCain.
Before the sign, Gale was never all that politically active. During the ’60s and ’70s, an era famous for protests, Gale can only remember making time to go to one. In 1971, he saw Sissy Farenthold, a liberal Democrat running for governor, at a Mineral Wells political rally. Also, Gale wasn’t and admittedly isn’t the tech savviest guy around. He was just happy to go along with the flow, taking the sign out only when the mood hit him. He didn’t even post about his adventures on social media. It was a local political group’s Facebook page that posted a photo of him first. At the same time, a friend told him he needed to contact the media. It was all new to Gale.
“It was definitely an out of the box experience,” he said recently over a cup of decaf breve latte with one Splenda, shaking his head in the pure wonder of it all. “People were saying I was brave and that I was special, all that stuff. I wasn’t good with that. I faced real fast pitchers when I was a young man playing baseball, and I had to be a lot braver to stay in the batter’s box to face them than standing with that sign. So if I’m not brave or special, what am I? Shit, I’m just an old man with a sign.”
And that’s how he came up with that particular handle: Old Man with a Sign. From that inauspicious beginning, Gale became to no one’s greater surprise than himself somewhat of a social media sensation.
“I knew it was more than I ever planned on when I got interviewed by a morning radio station in New Zealand,” he said. “They wanted to manipulate me. ‘We hear you’re really angry at Trump.’ I told them, ‘I am a little pissed off, but I don’t sit around being angry with him all the time.’”
When trying to explain how his popularity grew, Gale became thoughtful, “I think it’s because I’m an old white man in Texas doing it. I think that was different. It kinda went against the grain, against everything you think about Texas, probably.”
He abandoned his first perch on Hulen and Granbury to go north to the intersection of Hulen and Bellaire Drive. As Gale explained in his Oklahoma drawl, slightly reminiscent of Oklahoma native Reba McEntire’s accent, except delivered by a gruff 76-year-old with a wicked sense of humor, “It was perfect, lots of lanes and an island to stand on.” Also, the Old Man with a Sign became a fixture at local protests that were popping up during those first two years of the Trump administration. There, people would clamor to take pics with Gale. His fame, such as it was, was growing.
After a while, friends urged him to take his show on the road. He raised thousands of dollars through GoFundMe and traveled in Texas from Midland to Houston. But he went out of state, too. “I went to about 17 or 18 states,” Gale said before ticking off some: “Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia, North Dakota, Kansas, and New York state.”
He also spent a lot of time in our nation’s capital and even got to Kansas to photobomb members of the infamous Westboro Church, or, as Gale described them, “a bunch of crazies with signs.”
During his travels, he was interviewed by around 15 newspapers and TV stations around the country. He even penned an op-ed for the Sunday edition of The Midland Reporter-Telegram. But the Lawton, Oklahoma, native learned the biblical admonition that “a prophet is without honor only in his hometown” because he never earned any respect from his hometown paper. Twice he contacted The Lawton Constitution, even sat down for an interview and photos. To Gale, the editor looked down his nose at him and never printed either the article or the photos.
That was just a bump in the road. Mostly at that time McCray was just enjoying the adventure. “It was just an organic, spontaneous thing that just happened.”
He would post on his Facebook page that he needed a place to stay in a town. Usually somebody would offer him a couch. Sometimes, he had to spend the night in his car. Through Facebook and other social media, Gale was able to meet, what he calls, “a lot of wonderful people,” some of whom he is still in contact with.
“There were some sweet married ladies that I’d go back to their places anytime.” Gale told me with a big smile, shaking his head, as if he were still bowled over at someone he didn’t know being so nice to him. “One even got me organized before I went to D.C.”
I asked him about the craziest things that happened on the road.
After he sipped his latte, he smiled, remembering, “There was a guy in Midland that drove up and said, ‘Trump is the savior of this country.’ That really got to me, someone using a biblical term for Donald Trump. That is bizarre.”
Then Gale recounted an incident in North Carolina when a woman he was staying with was holding his sign at an intersection while Gale was nearby talking on his cell phone. One guy drove by and threw an orange and a banana at them. Then he returned. This time, throwing an apple. One of Gale’s followers on Facebook described it best, as “a drive-by fruiting.”
It wasn’t all fun and games. Often the police were called. “They’d say they heard I was in the street. Then I’d say, ‘Did you see me in the street?’ They’d say no. ‘Am I standing in the street now?’ They’d say no. Some said I had to leave. I’d tell them no. I have a Constitutional First Amendment right to be here.”
After that, they might hang around, but generally they left him alone. To Gale, the vast majority of his dealings with law enforcement were positive. In fact, early on, when he was still on Granbury and Hulen, one of Fort Worth’s finest offered to buy him something to drink. Gale knew the most important thing was that the appearance of police drew eyes to the sign, which was the whole point, anyway.
Many people were not so gracious. He received plenty of drive-by fingers, even some, dangerously, with both hands delivering two one-finger salutes. And some with parents or grandparents shooting fingers with their children in the back seat joining in. We do live in interesting times. Gale’s usual response was laughter. In fact, he often kept a running tally of the fingers that came his way to regale his Facebook followers with.
A couple times, though, it wasn’t quite so funny. Once he had a real scare, at least for a bit. One man threatened to come back to the intersection with his 9mm. At that same time, Gale was standing with a man he thought was a supporter, but as they snapped a selfie, the man flashed the OK hand signal, a.k.a. the white-supremacy sign. And after Gale was threatened, the man piled on, started cussing Gale out. Most of us would have quit after that. Gale just kept going.
In a way, the Old Man with a Sign phenomenon was a product of its time –– spurred by the anti-Trump fervor after his surprise election and the amazing power of social media. However, another movement had started that would throw a wrench into McCray’s time in D.C., the MeToo Movement. On the Old Man with a Sign Facebook page, a 24-year-old woman angrily denounced Gale for flirting with her. She copied some messages that Gale had sent her, nothing gross, but obviously written by someone who was smitten. Online, McCray apologized unconditionally and profusely. He also offered to return any money that anybody had given him. Not one person took him up on his offer.
“I admit to being an old fool,” Gale said. “I felt shame.”
A number of his followers told him that by apologizing so forthrightly that he’d acted honorably. Others were not so forgiving. The woman who was running his Facebook page quit as a result. Gale also wrote that if anyone who had offered him a place to stay wanted to change their minds, there was no problem. No one did.
When asked what he learned from it all, he laid it out with characteristic honesty: “Don’t show interest in a 24-year-old when you’re an old fart like me.”
In all, he was away from the Fort for five months, three of those in Washington, D.C. What he liked best there were all the people taking pictures with him and the sign, but his money was running out, so back to Fort Worth he came. And there he encountered a bigger obstacle than the police or one-finger salutes: depression.
“The depression came back when I came back,” he said. “I get down every time I get back from a trip. It just wasn’t the Trump gig.”
An actor he knew shared with him that he dealt with the same feelings after finishing up an acting job. Hounded by low self-esteem most of his life, Gale had experienced depressions before. This was different. This depression was debilitating, pushed him to the very edge. He feared for his life, so the only thing he could do was cash in part of his 401K and head to the Kiloby Center in California for help. There he realized a lot of things. First, he had an attachment to depression. And while he admitted there is no “magic pill,” after three and a half months he did improve.
After talking about his depression, Gale became thoughtful for a minute and said, “Right now, I’m back at the same place.”
The recent death of his brother and some nagging health problems were getting him down.
When I asked him if he’ll miss the Old Man with a Sign gig, he smiled broadly and came out with an immediate no.
“It just became too much for me,” he explained. “It’s almost as if I got tired of me and the sign. I got tired of people having an image of me. They thought I was just something ‘wow,’ and I was just doing that.”
“What’s next?” I asked him.
Then his eyes lit up. “I’m going to India in December” to a Salvador Poe Intensive. Gale had met Poe, a former musician, some time ago and attended what Poe calls “inquiries.” Gale was struck by their simplicity, directness, and real wisdom.
When I asked if that was therapy, Gale shook his head and said, “No, it’s just being with a friend who knows stuff worth knowing –– to show a different way of seeing life.”
So Gale, often described simply as a retired letter carrier in articles about him from Texas to North Dakota, like all of us, is more complex than the stereotype. He was and is a true seeker.
In 2017, caught up in the anti-Trump moment, Fort Worth’s Gale McCray brought people together over a simple sign with sly, homespun humor. Then he became sorta famous through social media until reality brought him crashing to the ground. Maybe India with its rich culture and wisdom-seekers will set him right. Or, who knows, maybe, we’ll get reports of an old man holding a sign in Delhi, protesting India’s own populist fear-monger, reading simply, “Modi –– That Boy Don’t Act Right.” l