Graham Remembered as ‘Great Statesman’

Graham Remembered as ‘Great Statesman’

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Hailed as a consummate public servant and champion of the environment, former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham lay in state Friday in the Old Capitol as about a thousand mourners paid their respects.

Graham, 87, died April 16 at a retirement home in Gainesville.

A military honor guard and Florida Highway Patrol officers carried Graham’s casket, draped with white flowers and greenery that evoked his commitment to the environment, into the Old Capitol as the Florida A&M University Gospel Choir sang “Walking into the Light” by Aretha Franklin.

Graham’s family — including his widow, Adele, and daughter, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham — spent roughly 30 minutes comforting each other beside the casket before greeting a bipartisan mix of current and former elected officials, lobbyists, staffers and others who lined up for more than three hours to honor the Coral Gables native. A private graveside service was scheduled later in the day at the Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee, near the governor’s mansion.

Many in the steady stream of visitors Friday paid homage to Graham with a nod to his sartorial trademark — an iconic Florida tie, such as one that was encased in plexiglass beside his coffin. Others sported tongue-in-cheek lapel pins in the shape of a graham cracker.

Attendees included Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Gov. Bob Martinez, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muniz and former Florida Senate President Jim Scott.

“He always made time for you. Even when we didn’t agree on an issue, you couldn’t get mad at him. He was a really likable guy. So, it was pretty hard to deal with someone like that,” Martinez, a Republican who succeeded Graham, a Democrat, as governor in 1987, told reporters.

Graham, born Daniel Robert Graham on Nov. 9, 1936, was largely remembered Friday as a statesman whose legacy was rooted in his devotion to the state and its residents. Graham, who served as governor from 1979 to 1987 and as U.S. senator from 1987 to 2005, was elected during the height of Democrats’ political power in the state. He served in the Legislature before getting elected governor.

“He was a wonderful person to work with. He was a wonderful person, period, not just to work with. He was a really great guy. We had absolutely no difficulty during our transition. My relationship with him, beginning in 1970, was nothing but amiable. He was just a great human being,” Martinez said.

People swapped “Graham stories” as they made their way to the second floor of the Old Capitol.

“He was a great statesman. He was someone whose word you could rely on. He was always concerned about the greater good. I don’t ever recall any piece of legislation, any action he took in public office that wasn’t to benefit the people of Florida, and we desperately need people like that today,” Marjorie Turnbull, a former state representative from Tallahassee, told The News Service of Florida.

Turnbull said she met Graham while they both attended the University of Florida, where she and Adele Graham were sorority sisters. Turnbull recalled Graham’s ubiquitous “yellow notebooks,” where he cataloged his daily activities and made notes about his interactions with others.

“The thing that was so amazing about him is you could see him and five years later he would say, ‘Hello, and are you still working at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs or are you still kayaking?’ He always remembered individuals, and that was one of the things I think that endear him to the people of Florida,” Turnbull said.

Former Tallahassee Mayor John Marks credited his political career to Graham, who appointed Marks to the Public Service Commission in 1978. Marks said he was the first Black member of the commission, where he served for a decade.

“He is very special to me. Without Bob Graham, I’m not so sure I’d be where I am today, politically. He gave me that catalyst, that jumpstart in my political career. He took the chance on a young guy, I just happened to be African American, and I’m extremely, extremely proud and grateful that he saw something in me, and I have been able to do a lot of things I hope, as a result of his confidence as a result of what he saw in me as a young guy,” Marks said.

Graham’s love of the state’s natural resources was on display Friday in foliage adorning his casket. The spray “celebrates the senator’s stewardship of Florida’s diverse environments” and “lifelong love of and commitment to preserving Florida’s rare beauty,” the family said in a statement. The “curated arrangement” — which included orchids, magnolias, kumquats and Spanish moss — “evokes iconic Florida landscape paintings so loved by Bob and Adele,” the statement said.

Graham began his political career in 1966, when he was elected to the Florida House “as part of a group of young progressive Democrats sympathetic to civil rights, public education and the environment,” says the website of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, which Graham founded.

Graham was elected governor in 1978 after undertaking “workdays,” where he performed a variety of jobs including picking tomatoes, bussing tables and patrolling the streets as a law-enforcement officer. Graham conducted more than 400 “workdays” during his political career.

Graham epitomized “the best of all of us,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikki Fried said.

“He really showed not just the people of the state but the people of this country what it means to be a public servant,” she said.

Fried said that she “heard the stories” about Graham’s workdays and his efforts for the state as she grew up in South Florida and became immersed in politics from a young age.

“It was important to be here to remember him and to honor his legacy,” she said. “He was able to bring people together regardless if they were a Democrat, Republican, it was all about the people first and so bringing everybody together meant that the right policies were going to get passed because it was bringing all interests together, and he understood that.”

Graham “never stopped thinking,” said state Rep. Allison Tant, a former chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party.

“He had a million ideas, and he was never out of them. He was always looking for ways we could invest in our state to make it better,” she said.

— News Service assignment manager Tom Urban and broadcast journalist Mike Exline contributed to this report.

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