Action News has learned Gray was attending the Wimbledon Championship in London Monday, when he died suddenly at his hotel.
The 71-year-old was not known to be sick.
A husband and father, a man of God, a political giant: former Congressman Bill Gray had many descriptions, but his friends say he was a true public servant.
"He was a regular guy, but he also knew how to walk with kings and queens," said Philadelphia Councilwoman Marian Tasco.
She met Pastor Bill Gray back in 1975. She later helped him win the U.S. House seat for the commonwealth's second congressional district in 1978.
Over the years, Tasco and so many other young leaders were influenced by the congressman, who is known for transforming politics in Philadelphia and having an impact across the world.
"He built a very strong network of leadership in this city because he wanted us to make a difference," Tasco said.
"So many, many others, black, white, Latino, across Philadelphia owe their political start, their communities' start, to Bill Gray," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
Gray's father was a college president, his mother, a college dean. Gray was born in Louisiana, raised in Florida and later in North Philadelphia where he graduated from high school.
The Franklin and Marshall grad was also educated at a number of religious institutions, a path that led him into the ministry and Bright Hope Baptist Church at 12th and Oxford Streets where he spent 25 years in the pulpit.
"He used both his spiritual leadership and his political leadership to protect the most vulnerable citizens, to create opportunity for people, and to move his beloved Philadelphia forward," said former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.
During his 20-year tenure in Congress, Gray was the first African American House Majority whip and chair of the House Budget Committee.
In that position he was responsible for sanctions against South Africa that helped bring an end to apartheid and Nelson Mandela's release from prison.
"This was a gifted man who used his gift to help a lot of other people, and he will be missed," said former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode.
Gray retired from the House in 1991 to lead and raise billions of dollars for the United Negro College Fund.
But his friends say no matter where his work took him, Philadelphia was home for the late congressman who was about service until the end.
"I talked to him once or twice every two weeks. . . just always full of life. It's an absolute shock, and a major, major loss," said Congressman Bob Brady.
Bill Gray leaves behind a wife and three sons.
AN APPRECIATION BY ACTION NEWS' VERNON ODOM
When Rev. Gray went to Washington in the late 70s, he hit the ground running. No back bench for him. He secured assignments on powerful committees right away, and his ability to build consensus and get things done became one of the wonders of the political world.
Former Philadelphia Congressman Robert Borski watched in awe as Gray deftly operated in the ultimate halls of power.
"He knew how to get things done. When I think back to my early time and fighting those Reagan budgets, he was able to protect urban America and get something that people throughout the Democratic party and in fact across the aisle would agree to," said Borski.
The book on Bill Gray was he could deliver and was not afraid of a fight. He was criticized here at home for focusing on the battle against South Africa's apartheid.
But he kept a close eye and touch on matters here at home, like getting federal money to revamp the Ogontz Avenue corridor.
He mentored many local up-and-coming politicians, among them now-veteran state lawmaker Dwight Evans.
"He taught me how politics was the ability to count. You had to be able to count and you had to understand how you put deals together and make things make a difference," said Evans.
International leaders made pilgrimages to the Bright Hope Baptist Church, where Gray's father and grandfather preceded him as pastor.
"He knew how to wheel and deal. He knew who to wheel and deal with from presidents Reagan to Carter, when Mondale ran for president, and you see even Bill Clinton called on Bill Gray to deal with Haiti," said Evans.
As he watches the logjams, stalemates and dysfunction in Washington today, Borski says a Bill Gray prototype is what's sorely missing - missing from the field of play.
"He was a tough negotiator. He knew where he wanted to be and he got there," said Borski.
Gray's widow, Andrea, and Bright Hope's current pastor are in London making arrangements to bring Bill Gray home to his final resting place.
In recent years, gray and his wife have been living in Florida. Funeral plans and final arrangements are not yet complete, but a close family friend is certain there will be services at Bill Gray's beloved Bright Hope Baptist Church.
TRIBUTES POUR IN
Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA) released the following statement Monday following Gray's passing:
"The people of Philadelphia and all across America have lost a great friend and advocate. Congressman Gray served with extraordinary distinction in the Congress. He was a leader with huge impact for middle class and under-served Americans.
"His dedicated leadership benefited the people of Philadelphia. He never lost sight of the needs of those in the urban community. Through one of his non-profits, the Union Housing Corporation, he was instrumental in developing housing for low and middle residents. He was committed to making sure that Philadelphia residents had access to quality, reliable transportation. Amtrak's 30th Street Station is one of the best, most efficiently run train facilities in the nation because of Gray's commitment to investing federal resources in America's infrastructure.
"As our thoughts and prayers in recent days have been directed toward South Africa and Nelson Mandela, it is appropriate to remember today that Bill Gray performed a major and valuable role in reshaping American policy toward dismantling the apartheid state.
"And finally, Bill Gray was my friend, -- he was the very embodiment of how to turn the power and platform of the House of Representatives for true public service. Bill was a man of unshakeable faith, a towering spiritual leader for Philadelphians through his lifelong commitment to the Bright Hope Baptist Church. His strong, powerful and influential voice will be missed in Philadelphia and around the nation.
"Our prayers go out to Bill's wife Andrea and his children as they mourn their sudden loss."
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke released the following statement Monday night on Gray's passing:
"Congressman Bill Gray was one of the most significant figures in Philadelphia politics. I am deeply saddened to learn of his passing.
"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. He helped make the renovation of 30th Street Station possible, and the sight of that magnificent structure should give us all reason to be thankful for his service.
"On a personal note, I always appreciated his support for the families and communities of North Philadelphia. My deepest condolences go to Congressman Gray's wife, Andrea, their sons, and the rest of their family."
U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) released the following statement:
"I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former Congressman Bill Gray. Bill continued his father's ministry by serving as Pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church.
"As a member of Congress, he was a tireless advocate for the people of Philadelphia and a trailblazer for a new generation of African American elected officials. Bill Gray was the first African American to serve as Chairman of the Budget Committee and Majority Whip. His leadership in Congress against apartheid in South Africa is felt today in a country where a free people live in a thriving democracy. After his career in Congress, he played a major role in advancing diversity in higher education at the United Negro College Fund where he helped countless young people achieve the dream of an education.
"As part of our celebration of black history month in 2012, I paid tribute to his life of service. My thoughts and prayers are with Congressman Gray's family."