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St. Rita's Ethan Gray Wins IHSA's Heart Of The Arts Award

By Howard Ludwig | February 4, 2015 8:56am | Updated on February 4, 2015 9:01am
Ethan Gray Wins IHSA's Heart Of The Arts Award
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DNAinfo/Howard A. Ludwig

ASHBURN — Ethan Gray, 18, of Beverly was announced to quiet applause Tuesday as the IHSA's nominee for the Heart of the Arts Award.

Then came a shout from the back of St. Rita of Cascia High School's chapel at 7740 S. Western Ave. in Ashburn.

That shout quickly became a roar that filled the chapel and brought the 637 students at the all-boys Catholic high school to their feet.

It was a fitting ovation for Gray, who has both suffered and celebrated quietly while attending St. Rita.

Gray was diagnosed with sickle cell thalassemia as an infant. This rare inherited blood disease affects his circulation. An outbreak or "pain crisis" settles in various parts of his body with a throbbing pain as his irregular-shaped red blood cells back up — most often in his thighs.

 Ethan Gray, 18, of Beverly is a talented actor, artist and musician. He's been able to showcase these talents at St. Rita of Cascia High School in Ashburn. The senior on Tuesday was announced as the winner of the IHSA's Heart of the Arts Award.
Ethan Gray
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"I can't really rush myself as hard as others without knowing there will be a risk in the end," said the soft-spoken high school senior.

Howard Ludwig says Gray is quiet about his struggles:

Indeed, Gray's pain crises are often brought on during periods of heavy exertion, stress or being exposed to extreme temperatures. He has never run a mile and his parents know to keep Tylenol, Gatorade and heating pads nearby.

To quell the disease, Gray receives monthly blood transfusions at Advocate Christ Hospital in suburban Oak Lawn. These began after he suffered a stroke on stage in St. Rita's auditorium in April.

Gray spends a lot of time in the school's theater. He began on the lighting crew as a sophomore and worked his way toward center stage. He's been cast in three school plays, including "Hamlet," and was picked as the funniest performer at one of St. Rita's improv shows

“I didn't think that I was good at acting,” he said. “But the theater program was such a good atmosphere, I loved going back and wanted to improve.”

Ethan has this same drive when it comes to music. He plays 11 different instruments, though he mostly gravitates towards the saxophone and guitar. His musical talent and resolve have made him a leader in both the school's jazz and marching bands, said Cindy Gradek, St. Rita's band director.

"Ethan didn't even pick up a sax until he came to St. Rita," said Allena Gray, Ethan's mom.

Allena Gray was Ethan's teacher for years before he enrolled at St. Rita — following his older brother Emale, 27, who also graduated as a Mustang.

She homeschooled all four of her children through the bulk of their elementary school years after Ethan suffered a pain crisis brought on by catching a cold from classmates at age 5. Ethan Gray spent a month in the hospital suffering from pneumonia before his mom pulled him out of school.

Ethan Gray went years without suffering a pain crisis while studying at home. His mother worked tirelessly to keep germs to a minimum and kept a watchful eye on her son.

But when it came time for high school, both Ethan and his parents knew it was time for him to leave the nest. He enrolled in a myriad of clubs at St. Rita. In addition to theater and music, he also signed up for the school's paintball, video game, and Spanish clubs.

"It was always the plan [to send him away for high school], and St. Rita was always the school," said Allena Gray.

She has no regrets about sending her son to high school despite the setbacks to his health over the past four years. Almost immediately after enrolling at St. Rita, her son spent a month in the hospital. He was playing in the band during a football game when a pain crisis hit.

"I remember I was getting really cold and at one point I just sorta froze up," Ethan Gray said.

The initial setback didn't dampen his enthusiasm for school activities. In addition to his extracurricular activities, Ethan Gray is also in Advanced Placement art classes. He began drawing — or more accurately tracing — superheroes and other scenes at a young age.

"At some point, I noticed I could draw really well," he said, admitting to eventually trading his tracing pad for a sketchbook.

A service trip in June to Ashburn, N.C. led to a chance meeting with Marvel Comics artist John Czop, a contributor to several comics including "Iron Man" and "Spider-Woman."

He and Ethan Gray have remained in contact ever since, with the high school student sharing his drawings and Czop sharing tips. Gray mostly draws his superheroes and surreal scenes using his iPad.

Spurred by this relationship, Ethan Gray hopes to study video game illustration and animation upon graduation. He's already been accepted to Columbia College Chicago and the American Academy of Art.

With his award on Tuesday, Ethan Gray will compete with 51 other nominees throughout the country for the National Federation of State High School Associations' top prize. Should he be named the top high school student for performing arts in the United States, Gray would be honored in July in New Orleans.

His band director beamed after the performance and award presentation on Tuesday. It was Gradek who nominated her saxophonist for the statewide recognition.

"When I read the criteria, I just thought, 'This is Ethan,'" Gradek said. "A lot of students here don't even know his story. He's so quiet about it."

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