On July 8, 1776, a 2,080-pound copper bell tolled in Philadelphia, marking a new beginning for our American way of life. On that momentous day when the Liberty Bell rang out, calling citizens of a young nation to gather for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, its toll didn’t trail away. The reverberations from that first ringing of the Liberty Bell still resound in the hearts of all Americans more than 230 years later.
The importance of that particular American symbol has not been lost on Joe and Cindy Gregory. As charter members of the NRA’s Golden Ring of Freedom, and as co-chairs of the Ring of Freedom National Advisory Committee, Joe and Cindy have dedicated themselves to supporting the NRA’s fight to protect the Second Amendment. Just as the Liberty Bell stands as a symbol of our nation’s independence, another set of bells now reminds us of our right to keep and bear arms—the fundamental right that guarantees the protection of all others.
Joe and Cindy located, purchased and restored two large bronze bells originally forged in the mid-1800s, and have donated them to the NRA to stand as enduring symbols of the freedoms the NRA fights to protect. The larger of the two “Freedom Bells” will reside at the NRA national headquarters in Fairfax, Va.; the smaller one, which itself weighs more than a ton, is already traveling to NRA events around the country.
"Symbols are very important to an effort and an ideal," Joe Gregory said. When this country was originally founded, the Declaration of Independence was read in Independence Square in Philadelphia, and the Liberty Bell rang out and the people cheered. That Liberty Bell is still a symbol of this nation’s yearning to be free more than 200 years later.
“These bells that Cindy and I have donated to the NRA are also important symbols. If you’ve ever heard a large bronze bell ringing, there isn’t any other thing like it. It goes through you. It has a sound that conveys a sense that something is going to happen, a call to step up and to do something positive. That’s the sound and that’s the feeling that you get when you listen to the large bronze NRA Freedom Bells when they ring.”
Just as important as the Freedom Bells to Joe Gregory is another symbol of the NRA: the gold jacket he received when he became a Golden Ring of Freedom member. He likes to joke about the $1 million price tag on the jacket, but Joe knows the value of that jacket far exceeds any monetary figure.
"My involvement with the NRA is based on my desire to leave a better world for my children and for others."
“Freedom is never free. It has cost a lot of precious Americans their lives,” Gregory said. “The jacket is a symbol of the commitment I’ve made to freedom, and it’s extremely important to me. That jacket means to me that I have intrinsic rights and am endowed by a loving Creator with certain unalienable rights: the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the freedom of a personal conscience, the value and responsibility of the individual, and the opportunity to live my life free from tyranny and totalitarian rule.
“I kid about it, that it costs me a million dollars to wear that jacket, but in all seriousness it’s a privilege to me and all the other members of the Golden Ring of Freedom to wear our jackets with honor and with dignity and with commitment to freedom.”
Joe and Cindy have been fortunate enough to be able to surround themselves with many other beautiful symbols of Americana. In 1999, the Gregorys acquired the historic Bristol Post Office and Custom House and began a three-year, $3 million effort to rescue the Bristol, Tenn., landmark from permanent decline. Today, the building serves not only as an office building for the Gregory family, but also as a place where the Bristol community can come to get a glimpse into the area’s rich history.
“Bristol, Tenn., and Virginia are known as the birthplace of country music,” Gregory said. “When I became a part of this community, I became knowledgeable about several unique instruments that were available, and I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase them.”
In the beautifully restored Bristol Post Office and Custom House, Joe and Cindy keep an impressive collection of musical instruments that shaped American country music. Joe has several mandolins that were owned and played by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. Joe owns and displays Serial No. 2 of the Bill Monroe model Gibson F-5l mandolin. (Serial No. 1 resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame.) He also displays a guitar owned and played by “the father of country music,” Jimmie Rodgers.
“I also have an Earl Scruggs-model Gibson banjo that is signed by Earl Scruggs and was played by him. I have a Martin guitar that was owned and played by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, along with a letter from him describing the instrument and how much he enjoyed playing it. It’s signed by Johnny Cash.”
Besides country music, Bristol is also known for NASCAR and its historic Bristol Motor Speedway. Joe and Cindy have a skybox at the speedway, and enjoy inviting friends up to enjoy the spectacle that Sports Illustrated magazine once listed as a “summer essential.”
“If you’ve ever been here to watch the night race in Bristol in August, you’ll know what they’re talking about. It really is a phenomenal show,” Gregory said.
American automobiles are another of Joe’s passions. In a garage, just next door to the post office where Joe and Cindy proudly display their invaluable collection of country music memorabilia, Joe has an equally impressive collection of vehicles that he says represent the heyday of American automobile making. There, he keeps a number of classic cars and vintage fire engines and pumper trucks from the 1950s.
“A lot of these fire trucks have less than 5,000 miles on them,” Gregory said. “They spent their time mostly in the firehouses, getting washed and waxed and rubbed on all day long. They’re great fun to drive and to show off. I especially like the pumpers from the ’50s. I think they look streamlined and fast—even sitting still.”
A baby boomer’s dream also sits in Joe’s garage: a pair of classic Plymouth muscle cars—a 1969 GTX and a 1969 Barracuda.
“I always saw those cars when I was in high school and wished I could have had one to drive,” Gregory said. “Now that I’m older and can afford them, I’ve been fortunate enough to find two excellent examples. I enjoy taking them out for a spin every now and then.”
When Joe and Cindy are able to get away from their Bristol home, they enjoy spending time in the outdoors—either on their 600 acres of wilderness property in the Blue Ridge Mountains, or at one of two locations they own in Montana.
“I really enjoy traveling about on ATVs, providing for wilderness habitat, providing a place where my friends can go and hunt or we can just sit back and relax with a cup of coffee and enjoy private ownership of a great piece of American property,” Joe said. “The respect for personal property and the rights of individuals to protect their personal property—that’s another of those individual rights that’s important to the NRA and to gun owners.”
Joe said he doesn't consider himself a "great hunter," but he does enjoy getting out with dogs on a beautiful fall morning for some upland bird hunting—primarily grouse, pheasant and bobwhite quail. He credits time spent on family camping trips with his father for his love of hunting, shooting and the great outdoors.
“I haven’t had the pleasure of hunting big game, although I have recently purchased a ranch out in Montana that borders Glacier National Park. I’ve been enjoying going out there and watching moose and elk—and I understand that there are grizzly around, and cougar, and mountain goats and bighorn sheep. I’m looking forward to going out there and planning a hunting trip with my friends for bigger game.”
As much as he loves time spent enjoying the outdoors, revving the engines on his classic Plymouths, or appreciating the aesthetic beauty and history of his musical instrument collection, what really drives Joe Gregory is his belief in the freedoms for which the NRA stands. Joe says there is no agenda attached to his support of the NRA—none, other than providing a freedom-filled future for his two sons, ages 7 and 14.
“As responsible adults, we all have to be concerned with trying to leave a better world for our children,” Gregory said. “My involvement with the NRA is based on my desire to leave a better world for my children and for others.
“You know, when you listen to our national anthem, and you hear the author of that, Francis Scott Key, he wrote that on a boat while Fort McHenry was being bombarded by the British in the War of 1812, and he asked a rhetorical question at the end of that great anthem. It’s a question that’s asked every time we hold a sporting event or we have a school assembly or we have a special event and we sing our national anthem. That question is: ‘Oh say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?’
“For Francis Scott Key, the good news was, anecdotally, that the flag still waved. And today, we still have to make sure that the flag waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave. Freedom is not free. And the NRA stands to defend freedom. That’s why I support it.”
The Million Dollar Jacket
The most visible aspect to membership in the NRA’s highest level of recognition, the Golden Ring of Freedom, is this distinctive custom made gold jacket.
Each jacket is made exclusively for the Golden Ring of Freedom member by Baltimore, Md.-based Jack Christopher Custom Clothing. Proprietor Christopher A’Hern personally measures each Golden Ring of Freedom member to ensure a perfect fit. The Golden Ring of Freedom logo is custom printed on the silk lining, and each button is fashioned after the NRA shield. Most significantly, a custom crest is affixed to the left breast of each jacket.
These crests are painstakingly hand-embroidered creations, adorned with precious metal bullion thread and wrought with symbolism. The overarching theme of gold symbolizes generosity and an elevation of the mind, while the silver signifies peace and sincerity. The acacia branches surrounding the NRA shield stand for eternal, affectionate remembrance. Rings have long been associated with fidelity and loyalty, while the colors orange and copper signify a worthy ambition. All these age-old symbols come together to form the Golden Ring of Freedom crest, worn proudly by a select few.