At 93, Bill Grace is the picture of what everyone yearns to be in their tenth decade of life. He is youthful in his looks and words, as sharp and as caring and thoughtful as humanly possible. He is named perfectly, as he radiates grace as he speaks of his life and his love of community.
Grace was born in Pittsburgh. He grew in the Hill District, which was home to many jazz greats. He played alto sax and clarinet, and at a young age, he also developed a deep love of art and photography.
“I always liked cameras,” says Grace, who now lives in Yorktown with his wife, Janice.
He worked at a photo store after school, and that gave him the opportunity to take cameras home and try them out. In high school, he owned an enlarger and discovered a way to make small senior portraits for classmates, selling 20 mini-portraits for one dollar.
After high school, he was a freelancer for a black newspaper, taking pictures of department store windows as they changed their displays.
Grace has been industrious since he was young, always embracing his curiosities and taking them as far as he could. “I just see something interesting to me and I explore it,” he says.
He joined the Air Force in 1951 at age 23 and served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He took part in 55 combat missions in Korea as an aerial gunman on B-26s.
In 1972, he retired. At the time, he was at Langley Air Force Base. After retirement, he worked two jobs — he was a janitor at Langley and NASA and then went home and repaired TVs.
Grace quickly decided to take his job to the next level. While working at NASA, he realized that there was an opportunity for minority-owned businesses to get government contracts without bids. So, he created W.M. Grace Inc., a facility management company. He received a $2.5 million contract to do janitorial work. His company received the contracts to manage the facilities at Langley, Fort Eustis, Norfolk Naval Base and Portsmouth Naval Hospital. At one point, his company maintained 5,000 houses at Oceana and had 45 trucks on the road. In 1996, he downsized and shifted to community work. He then focused on working for Harvey Lindsay and maintaining buildings in City Center.
In 2020, Grace decided he wanted to focus on something different.
This time, it was drones. He married his love of photography, his technical prowess and his experience on planes. He is now a licensed drone pilot. He owns 15 drones. “I’m having so much fun with them,” he says. He can map areas with them and even help with search-and-rescue efforts.
Grace, who is “out and about all the time,” has an eye for photography, whether it’s using drones or a camera. His house is filled with pictures he has taken locally and during his travels. Many of his photos are black and white, as that is his preferred medium.
“When I see something, I have a title for it before I take the picture,” says Grace. “I capture what I see and put it out there. I see sights in the streets that most people ignore.”
At one point, Grace decided to share his passion for photography and opened a studio called Unique Photography that people could rent and use to shoot pictures. When it closed, he donated all of the equipment to Christopher Newport University (CNU).
A close relationship between Grace and then CNU President Paul Trible developed over the years. When CNU built the Mary Torggler Fine Arts Center, Grace, an active community member who has served on a plethora of local boards, wanted to be part of it. The William Grace Community Gallery was born, and now his love of art and photography will live on in his honor. Student artists can use the space, which has a high-profile location on the first floor of the center, to showcase their art and creations. For Grace, that is perfect.
“It’s my legacy,” says Grace with a smile. “I decided to leave it here. The world’s been good to me. This area has been good to Bill Grace.
“You can’t take it with you,” says Grace with a twinkle in his eye. “My vision has come to fruition. I have everything I need.”
TO THE POINT: