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Civil rights activist, former UND professor, UFO theorist John Salter Jr. dies

John Salter Jr., later known as John Hunter Gray, taught at several schools across the nation, including the University of North Dakota from 1981 to 1994. Photo from the Salter family

GRAND FORKS — John Salter Jr., a former UND professor and civil rights activist who was the first person to receive the Martin Luther King Jr. award in North Dakota, died Monday, Jan. 7, at age 84.

Salter was a professor at UND from 1981 to 1994. He chaired the American Indian Studies Department and was a member of the UND Honors Committee.

“After he left UND, he changed his name to John (Hunter) Gray,” Salter’s son, Peter, said. “His dad -- my grandfather -- was a Native American. He was adopted at a young age by the Salter family, and that’s where that name came from. At some point later in my dad’s life, he wanted to give his family its name back.”

In 2000, while living in Pocatello, Idaho, John Salter changed his name again to simply Hunter Gray.

He grew up in Flagstaff, Ariz., and obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology from Arizona State University in 1958 and 1960, according to archived information from the University of Wisconsin.

He told the Herald in 1989 he considered his real degree a temporary injunction he received from the city of Jackson, Miss., for his involvement in the civil rights movement.

John Salter participated in several street demonstrations and a sit-in with social activist Medgar Evers. A photo of him sitting with other sit-in participants while white patrons dumped condiments on them became a popular depiction of violent segregation at the time.

He also participated in Mississippi’s first legal civil rights demonstration with King in 1963, according to previous Herald reports.

“He moved a lot because he would always find a different fight or different cause,” his son said.

Shortly after obtaining his official degrees from Arizona State, John Salter took a job teaching at Superior (Wis.) State College, where he met his wife, Eldri. He went on to assume various teaching positions across the country, including jobs at Goddard College in Vermont, Rainier State School in Washington and Coe College in Iowa.

John Salter was involved in activism and social justice everywhere he lived -- he was the southside director of the Chicago Commons Association for social services, and in New York state he directed the Office of Human Development for the Catholic Diocese in Rochester, N.Y.

He taught sociology at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Arizona, before he moved to Grand Forks.

Ongoing office hours

Scott Winter, a journalism professor at Bethel University in St. Paul, said he met John Salter through an American Indian studies class Winter took at UND.

“I was the kind of student who, once I found a good professor, I took whatever they taught,” Winter said. “I found (John Salter) brilliant, and I wanted him to give me books to read that I could finish and talk about in his office.”

Once Winter became a professor, he said John Salter supported him throughout both his most challenging and rewarding moments in academia.

“I think one of the reasons I got into teaching was because of my most compelling and eccentric professors,” Winter said. “I think back to all of the great teachers I had and they were all just great characters. John Hunter Gray was a great character for all of the right reasons -- he was a phenomenal storyteller, and he always stood for people on the margins.”

John Salter’s grandson, Thomas Salter, a doctor at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said he lived with his grandfather for most of his childhood and considered their relationship nearly a father-son one.

Even after he retired from UND, John Salter remained a mentor to many former students and colleagues, Thomas Salter said.

“It was almost like office hours,” Thomas Salter said as he recalled former students and colleagues visiting John Salter’s home. “People would come in and he would offer them support or guidance or just some direction. He was always an elder to everybody, not just a defined cultural group.”

Challenging worldviews

John Salter reported in the late 1980’s two encounters he had with a UFO while out of state. He was a coordinator of the North Dakota chapter of the Mutual UFO Network in 1989, according to previous Herald reports, and he offered classes on his experiences to students.

His UFO courses were wildly popular, Winter said as he remembered attending some of the lectures from that class.

“To me, it was a course like that is really interesting because it challenges your world,” Winter said. “It challenges your world view and it opens up your worldview. And even if you don’t believe in it, it challenged you and that makes you a better person. I think that’s what all of his classes were about.”

John Salter was preceded in death by his wife, Eldri (Johanson) Salter in 2015. He is survived by his daughters Maria and Josie, his sons Peter and John III, and several grandchildren.

The family will hold private services for him.

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