Bob Graham, a pillar of Miami Lakes and political giant, dies at 87

Community By Linda Trischitta, Editor Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Bob Graham, one of the patriarchs of Miami Lakes and someone who spent nearly 40 years representing Floridians as a member of the state legislature, then as Governor and eventually as a U.S. Senator, died Tuesday of natural causes in Gainesville, Fla., his family announced. He was 87.

Graham’s time in politics began in earnest when he was first elected to the Florida Legislature in 1966. It was essentially uninterrupted until he chose to not seek what would have been a fourth term in the U.S. Senate, leaving that seat in 2005.

His work was long from over: Graham spent the remainder of his life writing books, fighting for the environment and leading the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, his alma mater in Gainesville, one of the places – Miami Lakes being the other – that he called home.

“We are deeply saddened to report the passing of a visionary leader, dedicated public servant, and even more importantly, a loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather: Bob Graham,” his family wrote in a statement Tuesday night announcing his passing. “As a legislator, Florida’s 38th Governor, and a United States Senator, Bob Graham devoted his life to the betterment of the world around him. The memorials to that devotion are everywhere – from the Everglades and other natural treasures he was determined to preserve, to the colleges and universities he championed with his commitment to higher education, to the global understanding he helped to foster through his work with the intelligence community, and so many more.”

Graham was famous for his authentic warmth and friendly demeanor, and for the notebooks in which he documented his life. When he met someone new, he often recorded their contact information and sometimes, if there was a shared interest in, say, college football – particularly his beloved Gators – an invitation to watch a game might follow.

As Florida’s 38th governor, Graham left office with an 83% approval rating, according to published reports.

After signing a bill Wednesday in Hialeah Gardens less than a mile from the coral stone home where Graham grew up, Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “We mourn the passing of Bob Graham. He was a great Floridian. He served this state with honor and integrity and really made a great contribution. So we are going to be giving him the state honors of lowering the state flag at half-staff once the date of internment is publicized. And I think that’s very, very much appropriate. So we’re very thankful for his service. He served very, very ably for this state for many, many years.”

On Wednesday night, DeSantis ordered state flags flying at all local and state buildings, installations and grounds in Florida to be at half-staff from sunrise to sunset, until sunset on the day Graham  is buried. The family has not yet announced funeral plans.

Graham chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 2001 to 2003 and co-chaired the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities, before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He pushed for transparency from the FBI’s investigations into the terrorists who trained as pilots in Florida.

He advocated for public education, expanding voters’ knowledge of civics and protecting the environment, especially of the Everglades.

Graham worked with his friend, the late musician Jimmy Buffett, to co-found the Save the Manatee Club in 1981, which led to the state’s manatee specialty license plate.

In 2021, the Florida Defenders of the Environment presented Graham with the Marjorie Harris Carr Award for Environmental Advocacy and his work halting the Cross Florida Barge Canal. The public works project that dated from the Great Depression and would have connected the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean across Florida was considered a threat to the state’s fresh water.

Daniel Robert “Bob” Graham was an Ivy League-educated lawyer and son of a state senator who aspired to become president of the United States.

He was born Nov. 9, 1936 to Hilda Simmons and family patriarch Ernest “Cap” Graham, a mining engineer and pioneer farmer in what became Miami-Dade County. Ernest Graham was later a two-term Florida senator who fought corruption in horse racing.

Bob Graham was raised at and worked on the family’s cattle and dairy farm in what was the eastern edge of the Everglades.

The family’s coral rock home still stands near the city of Hialeah and Florida’s Turnpike.

His brother William A. Graham developed the farm into the planned community that became the Town of Miami Lakes where residents could live, work and play. It was incorporated in 2000.

Graham attended Hialeah Elementary and Junior High schools and graduated from Miami Senior High School in 1955. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1959 from the University of Florida, where he was Phi Beta Kappa, a member of Florida Blue Key and Chancellor of Honor Court. The school inducted him into its Hall of Fame.

Graham graduated from Harvard Law School in 1962 with a law degree. Moving back home to Miami Lakes, Graham was elected as a Democrat to the Florida House of Representatives. He was a Doghouse Democrat and as a backer of civil rights, public schools and protecting the environment, could sometimes be in conflict with the conservative members of his party, according to his biography on the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service website.

Graham became famous for his workdays, when he stepped into the shoes of the people he represented. On more than 400 occasions he worked as a police officer; railroad engineer; construction worker; fisherman; garbage hauler; factory worker, busboy; teacher and customer service officer checking in passengers and handling baggage for USAirways, according to his biography on the website for the Bob Graham Education Center.

“I think the key to doing workdays as a successful learning experience is one you’ve got to actually do,” Graham said in a video on the UF website. “It’s not a matter of showing up at 8 o’clock and having your picture taken and shake hands and then leave.”

Former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, an attorney and Miami Lakes resident, said of Graham, “Obviously, I knew him well. [His wife] Lillie and I were just discussing it. The last time we saw him was at a Christmas gathering three years ago in [the] Loch Lomond [neighborhood]. He was very engaging, wanted to know about what everyone was doing and what our daughter’s interests were and where she was going to school.

“That was typical Bob Graham,” Penelas said. “No bells or whistles. In all the years I knew him, I never saw an entourage or security detail.”

About the mark Graham left upon state and national history, Penelas said, “I could talk forever about his legislative accomplishments but his most important lesson in this era of extremism is that you can be a moderate, a centrist and get things done.

“The big legacy he left was that,” Penelas said. “In the midst of the Mariel [Boatlift of refugees from Cuba to South Florida] crisis, the Iraq War, he was a consensus builder. That type of politics is long gone.”

Penelas praised Graham’s political integrity, too.

“He was brave because he took on his own party and President Jimmy Carter in 1980 during Mariel,” Penelas said. “He very much pushed back on criticisms of Cubans. He criticized the federal government for turning its back on Florida during that crisis and ignoring the integrity and hard work ethic of those who were already here. It was clearly an immigration issue.”

Penelas analyzes political races and consults with candidates.

“Bob Graham did extraordinarily well in his elections in what are now reliably red areas like Hialeah and Miami Lakes,” Penelas said. “I still see people when I’m out doing whatever who are Trump supporters, and they say they always voted for Bob Graham.”

He called Graham “the father of Save the Everglades when it wasn’t popular to talk about it. And how about public education? Contrary to what’s happening now where public education is being dismantled, he believed in good quality public education because it was available to everybody.”

Penelas said Graham should be credited for the development of the University of Florida and Florida State University.

“Because he believed in public universities, giving them independence, funding, Pell grants, scholarships,” Penelas said. “He wanted to make the public university system available to all.”

And as for Graham’s character, the former politician said, “He came from a well-to-do and powerful family, but he decided to go into public service and we’re better off for it.”

Mourning her family friend was Perla Tabares Hantman, who retired from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools board in 2022 after 26 years of service.

"In the wake of Senator Bob Graham's passing, I am overcome with profound sadness," Tabares Hantman wrote in an email. "His legacy as a champion for the people of Florida will forever resonate in the hearts of those he touched."

She said that beyond Graham's political stature, he was a "dear, lifelong friend and mentor, whose unwavering devotion to his family, and dedication to service and integrity served as a guiding light for all who knew him."

Tabares Hantman is godmother to the Graham's daughter Kendall, and she said she was very sad for all the Graham daughters and extended family, and "particularly his loving wife Adele." 

"His loss leaves a void that words can scarcely fill, but his spirit will continue to inspire generations to strive for a better tomorrow," she said.

Several presidential candidates considered Graham as a running mate, and in 2003 he ran for President but dropped out of the race.  

When the Bob Graham Education Center in Miami Lakes was named for him in 2002, Graham called it one of the greatest honors of his life, according to a biography on the school website. It is a K-8 school and one of two learning centers in town that are named for him.

Graham wrote six books. His last, “RHODA The Alligator” was published in 2020 and was his first in the children’s literature genre. It takes place in the Florida Everglades, for which Graham was passionate and worked to support throughout his political career.

His other titles were in 2011, the thriller “The Keys to the Kingdom” and four nonfiction books, the autobiography “Workdays: Finding Florida on the Job" (1978); “Intelligence Matters” with Jeff Nussbaum (2004); "World at Risk" with Jim Talent (2008) and “America: The Owner's Manual” with Chris Hand (2009 and 2016).

“RHODA,” a reptile who was bullied, was inspired by a bedtime story he would tell his grandchildren. Several of them encouraged him to publish her tale.

 “The biggest problem facing the Florida Legislature in recent years has been the Everglades,” Graham said when it came out. “I wrote this story for my grandchildren and girls and boys of their age to have them know and appreciate the magic, glory, and adventures of the Everglades.  The story of Rhoda is to understand that minds are changeable, accepting others as they are and can be.”  

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Adele Khoury Graham; four daughters: Gwen Graham, of Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., who represented Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives and is the current U.S. Asst. Secretary of Education for legislation and congressional affairs; Cissy Graham McCullough of Hingham, Mass.; Suzanne Graham Gibson of Miami, and Kendall Graham, of Miami Lakes; 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“Bob Graham would tell people his favorite title was not Governor or Senator,” his family statement read. “It was the name his grandchildren gave him: Doodle. ‘When I’m really good, they call me Super Doodle,’ he liked to say. For 87 years, Bob Graham was so much more than really good. He was a rare collection of public accomplishments and personal traits that combined to make him unforgettable. As his family, we will never forget his love for us, the love he had for Florida, the United States, and the world, and the love so many people showed him. We thank God for the gift of his life.”