Former U.S. Senator, Florida Governor Bob Graham remembered with tributes following death at 87

Community By Linda Trischitta, Editor Friday, May 3, 2024

    The spray of palms, white orchid and magnolia flowers, orange kumquats and gray Spanish moss atop Bob Graham’s casket represented one of his passions:  the landscape of Florida, and protecting its environment.

     It was an elegant touch among several during the lying in state ceremony for the former Florida governor and U.S. senator on April 26 at the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in Tallahassee.

     The Florida A&M University Gospel Choir sang “Walk in the Light” by Aretha Franklin, as a police and military honor guard carried the casket up the steps of the landmark known for its red and white striped awnings.

     Adele Graham, wearing a black suit, led the mourners into the lobby as the nine pallbearers carried the casket up two more flights to a landing and placed it atop pillars. 

     Mrs. Graham sat between it and a portrait of her husband, to whom she was married for 65 years. 

     She talked with folks both fancy and regular, political veterans and elected officials from each party, some using canes and walkers who all waited on the staircases to share their condolences.

     A violin quartet played the hymn “How Great Thou Art” and classical music as mourners touched the coffin or in the case of one man, saluted it. 

     The Graham’s daughters and their husbands – Former U.S. Rep., now Asst. Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the U.S. Dept. of Education Gwen Graham and Steve Hurm; Cissy Graham McCullough and Billy McCullough; Suzanne Graham Gibson and Tom Gibson, and Kendall Graham -- and their children and cousins also greeted the public.

     Florida’s 46th governor paid his respects to the 38th man to hold the office.

     Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis stood at the coffin for a moment before shaking hands with Mrs. Graham and her family. In tribute to his predecessor, DeSantis ordered flags lowered during the 10 days after Graham’s death --  at 87 from natural causes in Gainesville on April 16 -- until his interment that sunny Friday afternoon. 

     Graham family relatives and executives of The Graham Companies gathered in the old Capitol, too, some wearing ties with a State of Florida design, as Bob Graham was known to do. 

     Graham was of Scottish ancestry. As the more than two- hour ceremony ended, a bagpiper’s mournful tune accompanied the casket as it was taken to the hearse and then to a private burial at Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee.

     Daniel R. “Bob” Graham was the fourth son of a South Florida mining engineer and state senator. 

     Graham was born during the Great Depression and raised in a coral rock home that flooded during the rainy season in what was the eastern edge of the Everglades.   

     The homestead still stands near the city of Hialeah and Florida’s Turnpike.

     Graham was a member of the family of dairy farmers and later developers who founded the Town of Miami Lakes.  He grew up to become an Ivy League-educated lawyer with aspirations to be president of the United States. 

      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 and was admitted to the Florida Bar that year. 

      He gave four decades of his life to serving the public: As a state representative from 1966 – 1970, when he was a backer of civil rights; elected as a Florida senator from 1970 – 1978 and then elected governor, when he led the state from 1979 – 1987. Graham left the governor’s office with an 83% approval rating.

     While a U.S. senator from 1987 – 2005, Graham chaired the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 2001 to 2003 and co-chaired the Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

     He pushed for transparency in the FBI’s investigations into the terrorists who trained as pilots in Florida and those who helped them.

     Graham also 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. He made a cameo appearance in Buffet’s music video for the song “Who’s the Blonde Stranger?”

  In addition to protecting the Florida Everglades, Graham advocated for public education and expanding voters’ knowledge of civics.

     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.

     While in the U.S. Senate, Graham voted against the war in Iraq. 

      He was considered by several presidential candidates as a possible running mate, and he ran for the highest office before ending his campaign in October 2003.  

      In retirement, he went on to write four of his 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.

     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,” about 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.”     

     When one of two public schools were named for him in Miami Lakes in 2002, Graham called it one of the greatest honors of his life. 

     Graham established 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. 

     Graham had the ability to relate to most everyone he met and drew voters from both the Republican party and his own Democratic party. 

     Perhaps it was because of his more than 400 “workdays,” when he toiled alongside Floridians who labored in every field, jobs that included police officer; railroad engineer; construction worker; fisherman; garbage hauler; factory worker, busboy; teacher and customer service officer checking in passengers and handling baggage for US Airways, according to his biography on the UF website.

     “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.”

     Family friend Rosa Nell Hammer met Graham in the mid-1960s when she waited tables at what was then called the Miami Lakes Country Club and he was a customer. 

     “He didn’t let politics ruin friendships,” said Hammer, who is 104 and lives in Miami Lakes. 

    For two decades she sold new homes for The Graham Companies. “He was good to everybody,” Hammer said. 

     Of his workdays, she said, “I thought that was the greatest thing he ever did. That way he knew what it was to pick up the garbage or be a waiter. He did everybody’s job, so therefore he knew what it was like, firsthand. That made him more empathetic.”

     Former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, an attorney and Miami Lakes resident, said of Graham, “In all the years I knew him, I never saw an entourage or security detail.”

     About Graham’s mark 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.”

     He also praised Graham’s political backbone.

     “He was brave because he took on his own party and President Jimmy Carter in 1980 during [the] Mariel [boatlift of Cuban refugees to the U.S.],” 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,” Penelas said. “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,” Penelas said. “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.”

     Mourning her family friend was Perla Tabares Hantman, who retired after 26 years serving on the Miami-Dade County Public Schools board.

     “His legacy as a champion for the people of Florida will forever resonate in the hearts of those he touched,” she wrote in an email. “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.”

     Graham enjoyed meeting people and would record their contact information in the notebooks he was famous for carrying. 

     If there was a shared interest – particularly in his beloved Gators football team – an invitation to watch a game might follow.

     Graham’s survivors include 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. 

     “Bob Graham would tell people his favorite title was not governor or senator,” a statement released by his family said. “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.”

     The family is inviting the public to attend a celebration of Graham’s life on Saturday, May 11, during two events. 

     A memorial service will be held from 1 p.m. - 2:30 p.m. at Miami Lakes United Church of Christ, 6701 Miami Lakeway South, Miami Lakes, Fla. 33014.

     A reception from 3 p.m. - 5 p.m. will follow at the Miami Lakes Hotel on Main, 6842 Main St., Miami Lakes, Fla. 33014.

     In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida.  For information go online at or call 352-273-1080.