'Sodfather,' Jim Graham, dies at 82

An old-time politician, who traversed the state pressing the flesh, eating barbecue and taking pictures with pretty girls, Mr. Graham was a legend in his own time. He was fond of saying that he never met a stranger.

Plenty of powerful people were on hand to pay their last respects to a man who was just as at home around the state capitol as he was at the country store. N.C. Gov. Mike Easley, former Gov. Jim Hunt, legislators and congressmen were at the memorial service for Jim Graham.

Mr. Graham’s ashes were buried in Cleveland in Rowan County.

A mountain of a man, Mr. Graham stood 6-foot-3, weighed more than 200 pounds in his prime and wore a size 15 ½ EEE shoe. His physical stature in his prime, however, was only preceded by his stature among the state’s voters and those in agriculture, who sent him to Raleigh for nine consecutive terms.

Mr. Graham grew up on a 250-acre farm where his family raised cotton, cattle and grain in Rowan County. His mother wanted him to become a minister. Instead, Mr. Graham chose to attend North Carolina State University, then known as State College. He drew heavily from Bible stories in making speeches in later years.

He graduated with a degree in agricultural education. After teaching in Iredell County, N.C., for several years, he took a job running a test farm in Ashe County, focusing on experiments related to raising beef cattle and sheep. He also managed the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem and the Farmers Market in Raleigh.

In 1964, Gov. Terry Sanford appointed him to fill the term of L.Y. “Stag” Ballentine, who had died during office as commissioner of agriculture.

The job was a boyhood dream come true for Mr. Graham, he recalled in his autobiography, “The Sodfather: A Friend of Agriculture in North Carolina.”

He attributed the dream of becoming ag commissioner to the comments of a hired hand on the family farm. The ag commissioner at the time was a man named William Graham, no relation, whose name was on bags of fertilizer. The hired hand said, “’Jim, if I were you, I would be Commissioner of Agriculture when you grow up and you won’t have to lift these heavy bags anymore,’” he later recalled in his autobiography.

At age 14, Mr. Graham took the advice to heart.

In his job as ag commissioner, Mr. Graham oversaw such diverse activities as gas pumps and food safety, as well as agricultural issues and the State Fair. His 36 years in office saw many changes in agriculture in North Carolina, with the move away from tobacco as the dominant crop to a more diversified agriculture.

He had a special affinity for the State Fair. He turned the event into the largest single gathering in the state of North Carolina.

It was there that he met his wife, Helen Ida Kirk, a home economics teacher from his hometown of Cleveland.

In a published report on the occasion of his last fair as ag commissioner in 2000, Mr. Graham said that seeing “her in front of the old waterfall at the fair that day hit me like a thunderbolt. I decided then and there I was going to marry her.”

Mr. Graham told Kirk that he didn’t have a way home and persuaded her to let him ride on the bus with her and her students back to Cleveland. He sat beside her on the long trip back home. They were married Oct. 30, 1942.

When a new waterfall was built in front of Dorton Arena in 1999, it was dedicated to Mrs. Graham, shortly before her death at age 81.

The story goes that when the couple’s second child was born in the 1950s, Mr. Graham marked the occasion by handing out birth announcements at the livestock pavilion proclaiming the arrival of a “blue ribbon champion.” For years, Laura Constance Graham thought the fair was a big birthday party thrown in her honor.

Mr. Graham’s association with the State Fair is the stuff of legend. The story is told of a wide-eyed little girl staring at Mr. Graham while he signed autographs at the opening of the 133rd State Fair, his last.

The little girl asked her mother, “Is that the president?” Her mother said, “No, that’s Jim Graham,” in almost reverential tones. “This is his fair.”

Mr. Graham also served as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the Southern United States Trade Association.

He developed the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services into an efficient operation, staffed with professionals who have in some cases spent their entire careers there. Britt Cobb, the interim ag commissioner, has been at the department for 25 years.

With his trademark vanilla-colored Stetson hat and cigar in hand, Graham was a political rally waiting to happen everywhere he went. People lined up to shake his hand and speak to him.

Peter Daniel, who worked as assistant ag commissioner for Graham for 20 years, said being around Graham was like having a “Harvard graduate degree in politics and public life. “He’d walk into Ballentine’s cafeteria (a popular downtown Raleigh eating establishment) and people would line up to talk to him. The servers knew him. They knew what he wanted.”

Daniel, who is now assistant to the president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, said he learned lifelong lessons working alongside Graham. “So much in government is accomplished through relationships and trust—people sitting down and understanding each other.

“He was a master in participating in that kind of politics that is so dependent on personal relationships.”

Graham always ended speeches by saying “I love my job.”

Many at his memorial service wore red campaign-style pins that declared, “Jim Graham is My Friend.”

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