WHEN William H. Gray III was a student at Simon Gratz High School, his father was set one day to speak with the student body.

"Don't worry, you can keep it short," the principal advised the father. "These kids aren't going anywhere."

"I don't know about these other kids," Gray's dad told the principal, "but I know one kid who is going somewhere."

Maybe it was parental pride or maybe the older Bill Gray had a feeling about his son. Whatever it was, as it turned out, truer words were never spoken.

William H. Gray III did indeed go somewhere, to become a major spiritual and political leader in Philadelphia and the nation, and a powerful influence on generations of African-Americans aspiring to be succeed.

He died suddenly yesterday while attending the championship tennis matches at Wimbledon in London, a family spokesman said. He was 71.

"He literally keeled over," the spokesman said. "He had not been ill."

Gray was with his youngest son, Andrew, at the matches.

Bill Gray followed his father into the pulpit of Bright Hope Baptist Church, became a powerful congressman who rose to the position of minority whip, led the United Negro College Fund where he set fundraising records, served on numerous business and charitable boards, and was a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

With all of his accomplishments, Gray often said that being a church pastor was closest to his core. "My dream growing up was to be a minister and educator," he said when giving his final sermon at Bright Hope Baptist on Feb. 4, 2007.

"I am basically a preacher," he went on. "Doing the important job of comforting the sick, burying the dead, marrying the young and dedicating babies. You are part of people's lives in a meaningful way."

Gray, who was retired and living in Florida, was chairman emeritus of the lobbying firm Gray Global Advisors. He was also pastor emeritus of Bright Hope Baptist Church and returned to give occasional sermons.

After learning of Gray's death, political consultant Bill Miller Sr. and Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition, gathered at the Northwest home of City Councilwoman Marian Tasco last night to commiserate.

Miller lamented the old days when a leader "was a bit more interactive, dynamic . . . Bill embodied that style. His ministry was about the power of the people. Not only has Philadelphia lost a legend, the country has lost a leader and African-Americans worldwide have lost a leader."

"We were absolutely shocked," Matlock-Turner said. "Words can't describe how I'm feeling. He was vibrant, lovely.

"He brought people in neighborhoods together. There was always competition between neighborhoods, but he was the glue that kept us looking at the big picture, and not getting lost in the parochial."

Tasco, a member of Bright Hope Baptist who was Gray's campaign manager in 1978, said, "He contributed a lot to Philadelphia in terms of leadership, exposing Philadelphia to the national scene. He was a down-to-earth man, a good person. He didn't forget anybody no matter what. He wasn't title conscious."

"From advocating for Philadelphia's fair share of federal dollars, to fighting against the injustice of apartheid in South Africa, Congressman Gray's mark cannot be erased," said City Council President Darrell L. Clarke.

Bright Hope Baptist Church said in a statement: "Reverend Gray's contributions to community, politics, ministry, education and business are immense, and he will undoubtedly be remembered by a host of diverse constituencies."

Mayor Nutter ordered city flags flown at half-staff.

In his congressional career, Gray became the highest-ranking African-American ever to serve in Congress. Elected as a Democrat from the 2nd Congressional District in 1978, he rose to chair the Budget Committee, the Democratic Caucus and in 1989, became the majority whip, the position he held when he resigned on Sept. 11, 1991, to head the United Negro College Fund.

A strong advocate for educational policies, Gray also played a key role in implementing economic sanctions against the apartheid regime of South Africa. In addition, he served as the special adviser to President Bill Clinton on Haiti in 1994, and assisted in carrying out a policy to restore democracy to that troubled island.

He was presented the Medal of Honor from then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

William Herbert Gray III was born in Baton Rouge, La., and grew up in St. Augustine, Fla., where his father was president of Florida Normal College, later Florida Memorial College.

The family later moved to Philadelphia, where he attended Simon Gratz High School.

He received a bachelor's degree in 1963 from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, which he entered on a basketball scholarship.

He went on to obtain a master's in divinity from Drew Theological Seminary in 1966 and a similar degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1970. He received a doctor of humane letters degree from Bates College in 1994.

He also studied at Oxford University in England.

As an undergraduate, Gray won a prize with an essay on black soldiers in the Civil War. He interned with the late black Congressman Robert N.C. Nix Sr., whom he would later defeat for Congress.

As president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, Gray set fundraising records in the 13 years he held the post.

About half of the more than $1.6 billion raised in the fund's history was collected during Gray's tenure. He also restructured the staff of the College Fund and relocated its headquarters to Northern Virginia.

He developed new technology to link its offices and member colleges electronically to facilitate sharing of scholarship and donor information, and developed the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute to analyze data on issues affecting African-American students.

He also ran a successful $280 million capital campaign.

Gray had been in the ministry since 1964 when he pastored his first church, Union Baptist, in Montclair, N.J.

While living in Montclair, he married Andrea Dash in 1971. Besides his son, Andrew, he is survived by two other sons, William H. Gray and Justin.

Services: Were being arranged.

DN Members Only: Elmer Smith remembers Bill Gray.