Miami Lakes celebrates the life of U.S. Senator, Florida Governor Bob Graham

Community By Linda Trischitta and Alexandra Herrera Friday, May 17, 2024

Hundreds of friends, colleagues meet for memorable day


     The celebration of Bob Graham’s life was a tribute to a decent man, a devoted husband, father and grandfather who as a governor and U.S. senator, was also a statesman and a role model for politicians today.

     The stories shared were a history lesson about state and national politics and how one unique man with humble ways showed how it should be done.  

     Many of the hundreds of people who gathered at Miami Lakes United Church of Christ on May 11 viewed Daniel Robert Graham – though all called him Bob – as a friend and a leader. 

     His constituents felt he cared about their lives, especially when they saw him perform their jobs during his more than 400 famous workdays.

     Graham was eulogized in a church that is less than six miles from where he grew up on the eastern edge of the Everglades.  

    The community filed into the nave to an acoustic rendition of “Margaritaville” written by Graham’s friend and fellow manatee protector, the late Jimmy Buffett. 

     They sang patriotic anthems and heard scripture and told stories about Graham, who died of natural causes in Gainesville, Fla. on April 16. He was 87.

     Bob and Adele Graham’s marriage spanned 65 years. They had four daughters, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She served as the First Lady of Florida from 1979-87, when he was the 38th governor.      

     Granddaughter Sarah Logan said, “We were born to a family of good values with an interest in politics.”

    She shared memories from her siblings and cousins.

      “The universal theme was how our grandparents celebrated and were present for each of us, individually and as a family,” she said.

     Graham would begin notes or calls with, ‘This is your loving grandfather.’ He attended elementary school graduations, basketball games and dance recitals, took the kids in college to regular dinners, sat with a third grader’s classmates and inspired a passion for service and public education, Logan said.

     Arva Suzanne Graham Gibson said to her mother, “Together with your dedication and advocacy for our father throughout, including his health-challenged years, is a true reflection of your magical life together. Like Dad, you are an incredible role model.”

     Gwen Graham, a former representative in Congress and currently Asst. Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs in the U.S. Dept. of Education, is the couple’s eldest daughter. 

     She praised her father as “so unbelievably smart, always thinking about how he could make complicated matters better,” but who, like many dads on Christmas Eve, struggled to put together dollhouses and bicycles on deadline.

     “Twenty-one years ago, Dad ran for president. I think we can all agree he would have been a great president,” she said, drawing applause from the crowd. 

     Lake Wales Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson was Graham’s first legal counsel when he became governor in 1978.  The men were fraternity brothers at the University of Florida. He said Graham’s administration was tested during its first six months, with a trucker’s strike and a call-out of the National Guard, suspension of constitutional officers and executions. 

     Graham was authentic, Gibson said, the same person inside the room where decisions were made as he was in public.

     “There was no macho profanity, there was no agenda, there was no pettiness, there was no gossip. It was, ‘How do we get to make the best decision, for the best reason?’ It was that simple.”

 Graham was the top person in an exclusive group of statesmen with the skills and respect that crossed all boundaries, and continually distinguished himself, whether representing the state, while in Congress and in foreign policy, Gibson said.   “He loved his State of Florida, and we are all the better for it.” 

     Graham knew Buddy Shorstein from college and appointed him secretary of the Dept. of Professional Regulation. He then served as Graham’s chief of staff in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. 

     “Working with Bob Graham was never a 9 to 5 job,” said Shorstein. “We worked more nights than we didn’t.”

     He credited Adele Graham for the couple’s long marriage, raising an accomplished family and being “Bob’s clear-thinking advisor. And she gave me plenty of advice as well. 

     “Bob was my friend, tutor, teacher and motivator,” Shorstein said. “The most important consistent lesson he taught was good public policy makes good politics.”

     Calling Graham “scary smart,” he recounted how briefings would be interrupted when Graham came up with questions the team didn’t have answers for. 

     “Bob unintentionally at times spoke over our heads,” Shorstein said. “Workdays changed all that. ... He significantly improved his ability to communicate with the people who would elect him, and he learned what the average Floridian went through to make a living.”

 As for Graham’s ever-present notebooks, a habit of his father Ernest Graham’s, too when he ran the farming business, Shorstein called them Graham’s “management tool.” 

     Though Graham used them to track what staff was tackling for constituents, record who he met or details from his day, a few reporters described them as “quirky.” The characterization may have discouraged presidential contenders who ultimately declined to draft him for vice president, Shorstein said.

     “There never was anything quirky about Bob Graham,” he said.  “Had [2000 Democratic Presidential candidate Al] Gore selected Bob, Florida would not have been lost by a few votes in the Supreme Court decision.”

     And if a Gore-Graham ticket won, “the country probably would have avoided what is perhaps the most serious foreign policy error in recent history, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq,” Shorstein said.

     He called Graham an expert in intelligence matters who was the only senator to vote yes in 1991 for the Persian Gulf War/Desert Storm in Kuwait and against the war in Iraq in 2002. 

     “And by the way, no weapons of mass destruction were found,” Shorstein said.

     When Republican Connie Mack III was running for U.S. Senate, Graham called him “an ‘idiological’ wacko,” Shorstein said. 

     After Mack was elected, Graham asked to meet, not sure what to expect.

     “Connie Mack was totally gracious, and asked Bob to escort him to the swearing in,” to uphold the tradition of the senior senator accompanying the junior senator to the ceremony, Shorstein said.

     For a dozen years, the senators met each month. And when constituents visited the Capitol, members of both staffs joined to meet them, Shorstein said. 

     The two U.S. senators from Florida would jointly support appropriations they felt would benefit the state, Shorstein said. 

     “Every six weeks or so, on a Friday afternoon, the staffs would meet for a beer social. This type of a bipartisan relationship would be unheard of today,” he said.

     Among the guests was U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. She called Graham “One of our state’s greatest public servants. Someone who I was able to get to know both while he was in office and following his daughter, who I served with.

     “Without his service, the state would not have risen to the acclaim that we have,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Restoration of the Florida Everglades, the diversification of our economy, the moral clarity with which he served. I’m just so proud to have known him.”

     Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava called Graham “a kind friend” and “a great man, one of the greatest that I have known in my lifetime. Truly the tributes were so moving because we know that he is one of a kind. He was the kind of guy that just stood for what was good and right, and for integrity.”

      Miami-Dade County County Commissioner Sen. Rene Garcia said he attended the service “to respect the man that I honestly try to emulate in my public life. We’re different parties but, there is no ‘but.’ 

     “He was a man of the people, a man who put the people first. … he is someone I look up to and I wish that I can at least, just for a little bit, do the same things that he did,” he said.

     Graham would call Garcia about certain issues when he was a state legislator.

     “He would always say, ‘Rene, you know what the right thing to do is,’” Garcia said. 

     Hilda Llovet described how Graham would attend Halloween parties for kids and adults at her home in town.

     “He had joy, seeing the younger children and asking them where they went to school,” she said. “He was very interested in what they wanted to do in the future, even if they were four years old, and asked how he could help everyone.”

     Town Clerk Gina Inguanzo recalled how Graham would visit his namesake elementary school, the Bob Graham Education Center.

     “We’d invite him for anything, awards, he wouldn’t ask what it was about,” she said. “He was there to celebrate the kids’ accomplishments. … This is one of the best governors we’ve had. He got an invitation to promote public education and be there, and he showed up.”

     Other guests included Miami-Dade County Public Schools Board Member Roberto Alonso; Wayne Slaton, the town’s first mayor; Mayor Manny Cid, Vice Mayor Tony Fernandez and town council members Luis Collazo, Josh Dieguez and Ray Garcia

     Fernandez said the stories shared about Graham’s bipartisan practices “had a lot of messages that all of us [elected officials] should take to heart.”