Karen Madison Gray, J.D.

Karen Madison Gray, J.D.

November 3, 1969 – July 12, 2022

Karen Madison Gray died unexpectedly of natural causes on July 12, 2022, at her home in Omaha, Nebraska. She was 52.

She was a graduate of Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology with honors. She received her Doctor of Jurisprudence, Law from the Vanderbilt University Law School.  Madison also pursued graduate work at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University.

Her professional accomplishments, many of which met at the intersection of science, law and higher education, were many. Most notably, she served as the Senior Assistant Director, Office of Contract & Research Administration at Vanderbilt University and as Associate Director, PreAward Grants Administration, Office of Sponsored Programs at Emory University before being named the Director of Sponsored Programs Administration at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in 2019.

Madison was a longtime member of the Junior League of Nashville,Tennessee, and devoted herself to animal rescue and welfare in every city she called home.

Naturally inquisitive, she was drawn to study science, logic and law in order to better understand the world around her. In a search for peace, she turned to poetry, Zen Buddhism and the Quaker belief in every person’s ability to experience the light within. She was a lifelong learner, and when she finally admitted to herself that she couldn’t be a student forever, she dedicated her career to higher education. She loved her work, and she did it brilliantly.

Those who knew and loved her will attest to the irresistible combination of intellect and whimsy that drew classmates, colleagues, neighbors, fellow volunteers and online gaming partners into her orbit and made them part of an extended lifelong family.

She was a consummate house guest; everywhere she went, she left a trail of stunning bouquets and handwritten notes. She always showed up for her friends in times of need, with a gift certificate to the nicest spa in town or a batch of still-warm homemade cookies. But the best gift you could ever get from Madison was her undivided attention. She was one of those people who made you feel seen, heard, and felt.

Madison was an insomniac, but she never wasted her waking hours. She used them to write poetry and fiction and, eventually, to help others do the same through writing workshops and classes.

Animals as well as people were the lucky recipients of her unconditional love and comfortable furniture; in return, they gave her a lifetime of delight that she shared with anyone who would listen. While she occasionally pleaded the fifth on how many cats she might be caring for at any given time, her generosity toward both cats and dogs in need was infinite and, therefore, needed no accounting.

Madison was hilarious. Sly. Generous. Whip-smart. But above all, she was kind: toward animals, friends, strangers and, most important, toward herself. That last one wasn’t always easy but, as a lifelong learner, she never stopped educating herself on the art of self-care. Whether she was baking herself boozy treats, decorating her house for Christmas, or putting up gentle-but-nonnegotiable personal boundaries (affectionately known to Madison aficionados as “the cone of silence”), she was determined to be her own best friend and advocate. We all have so much to learn from the way she lived her life.

She is survived by a sister, Cheryl Elsey (Karl Buche) of Maplewood, Minnesota, and a brother, Mark Elsey (Pamela) of Newnan, Georgia, and their children and extended family members. She was preceded in death by her parents, Daniel O. Elsey and Frances Carol (Ward) Elsey.

She will be forever cherished by circles of friends across the country and world. A celebration of her precious and wonderful life will take place at a later date.

Madison’s final arrangements are being entrusted to the care of Heafey Hoffmann Dworak Cutler Mortuaries of Omaha. Those wishing to make a donation in her memory are encouraged to consider The Humane Society (humanesociety.org) or an animal rescue organization of their choosing.



  • Miriam Bagully Posted July 21, 2022 8:04 am

    Miss you dearly my friend.

  • Cheryl Elsey Posted July 22, 2022 4:30 am

    Madison was my beloved baby sister. I can’t put into words the amount of pain I feel at losing you. You had so much more to accomplish, fun to have, animals to rescue, friends to love and a wonderful life to be lived. Know how much I love you and I look forward to our meeting again at the Rainbow Bridge where all our pets will be waiting for us. It’s going to be quite the party!

  • Cheryl Elsey Posted July 22, 2022 4:49 am

    Madison was my beloved baby sister. I cannot describe the amount of pain that I feel right now. You had so much more to accomplish, more fun to have, more love to give to your friends and a wonderful life to live. I look forward to our meeting at the Rainbow Bridge with all our pets. It will be quite the party!

  • Catherine Vrettos Posted August 6, 2022 6:02 pm

    I met Madison through the Junior League of Nashville. She was so kind and supportive as she mentored me. Your family is in my thoughts and prayers.

  • Catherine Beemer Posted August 6, 2022 7:41 pm

    I am heartbroken to learn this news. Madison was one of a kind and a joy to know. I thoroughly enjoyed our time together in the Junior League of Nashville. She will be deeply missed. Praying for peace for all who mourn her loss.

  • Jon Ciliberto Posted January 27, 2023 2:52 pm

    I am so sorry to read this. I worked with Madison at Emory and she was always a good friend to me despite challenging circumstances. I have had a tab open in my browser for a month or so, intending to give her a call. It would have been too late, alas.

  • Eli Thomas Posted July 26, 2023 8:30 am

    I am very sorry to hear this about Madison. When she was at Vanderbilt and I was at University Hospitals Health System in Cleveland, Ohio we negotiated an agreement between Vanderbilt and the Harrington Discovery Institute. I can attest to her insomnia as we spent one evening going over the details until past two in the morning. Madison took us through the contract line by line. It was one of the most memorable negotiations of my career and I respected her tenacity given what was, at that time, a novel type of agreement. It’s a good memory and she demonstrated the warmth of her personality while not giving an inch more for Vanderbilt than was required. I know you feel the pain of her loss and I am sorry I will not cross her path again professionally, but I am very glad to have learned more about her from this site. Like you, her family, friends and colleagues, I will remember her for the rest of my life. All the best.

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