November 02, 1998 12:00 PM

For Rev. Tom Grey, life has become one long road trip. So far this year, the Methodist pastor turned antigambling activist has spent 250 days traveling to 21 states. Although a tight schedule has occasionally forced him to fly, an even tighter budget generally keeps him cruising the interstates in his 1993 Toyota Tercel, stopping at Hardee’s (where he can read free newspapers) and steaming the wrinkles out of his one khaki suit in the bathroom of a Super 8 Motel. “I’m living off the land,” he jokes.

But appearances aside, Grey, who turns 58 on Oct. 27, is on a high-stakes mission. Since 1992, when a riverboat casino arrived in the placid Illinois town of Galena, where he was living, Grey has been a leader in the mounting battle against legalized gambling—a fight that comes to a head next Tuesday, when voters in California, Arizona and Missouri cast ballots on proposals to limit or outlaw it. “Gambling is government-sponsored greed,” he says. “It ought to have a warning label on it.”

And that, in a sense, is what Grey, now executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, provides. Working from his car, which he keeps loaded with antigambling literature and bags of homemade trail mix (pretzels and caramel popcorn), he crisscrosses the nation from his home in Hanover, Ill., speaking to church groups and citizens’ forums and organizing petition drives to block casino development. He also frowns on state lotteries and church-hall bingo. “We’re a ragtag army,” Grey says. Nonetheless, NCALG has proved effective. With an annual budget of $130,000 it has waged battles against the $50 billion gaming industry in 23 states since 1994 and won all but four by Grey’s account. Says William Jahoda, a Grey ally who once ran an illegal Chicago gambling operation: “It’s not just Tom’s religious commitment. He’s quite a street fighter.”

Even Grey himself admits his work has made him something of a zealot. “This is combat,” the Vietnam veteran insists, “and I want to win.” The son of a Chicago housewife and her husband, a salesman for Tampax, Grey was quarterback of the Arlington Heights High School football team and the first member of his family to attend college. He chose Dartmouth, where he majored in history and Russian civilization and minored, by his own admission, in escaping the then all-male campus. “I think that’s why I like road trips so much,” he says. “In college, we would drive five hours to meet girls.”

Grey ended up marrying his high school sweetheart, Carolyn Fletcher, who flew to Bangkok for the ceremony in 1966, when Tom was serving as an Army captain during the Vietnam war. In ’67, Grey entered a seminary in Evanston, Ill., and went on to serve at churches in inner-city Chicago. He and Carolyn now have two grown children—Amy, 30, a graphic designer in Moscow, Idaho, and John, 28, a Phoenix cop. “He was always laid-back,” says Amy. “Church wasn’t mandatory. We could do volunteer work instead.”

Yet Grey was anything but casual when casino operators announced plans to open a riverboat casino in Galena in 1992, four years after he and his family had moved there. “It was my flock that was going to be fleeced,” he says. “This is not something that you stick on Main Street. Because if you do, you get addiction, bankruptcy, crime and corruption.”

Grey and a small group of fervent supporters helped turn public opinion against the casino—80 percent of local voters said no to gambling in a nonbinding 1992 referendum—but county officials ignored the vote in a bid to attract tourist dollars to Galena. (Says Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association: “We believe that [gambling], by providing jobs and tax revenue, can energize the economy, particularly when it goes into areas that are depressed.”) In the end, the casino opened later that year, only to close for lack of business in 1997.

By then Grey had moved on to new battlegrounds, having left the pulpit in 1992 for his $36,000-a-year NCALG work—traveling, he claims, from one sympathetic audience to another. “Hey, that’s the beauty of this issue,” says Grey. “The liberals see it as social justice, and the conservatives see it as family values. Both are right!”

Patrick Rogers

Kate Klise in Galena and Barbara Sandler in Chicago

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