'Sodfather' dead at 82

Graham respected as friend of farmer

Staff WriterNovember 21, 2003 

Jim Graham, a back-slapping farm boy who was North Carolina's agriculture commissioner so long he was called "the Sodfather," died Thursday of complications from pneumonia. He was 82.

In his 36 years in office, Graham stomped grapes and drank the juice from his cowboy boot, kissed a donkey's rear to settle a bet, chomped on tobacco leaves for television cameras and brayed like a donkey at political gatherings to signal the war cry of the Democratic Party. He retired in January 2001.

"We have lost one of our most dedicated public servants, who will always be valued for his compassion and hard work," said Gov. Mike Easley. "The commissioner will forever be remembered and respected as a champion of agriculture with a burning desire to make life better for all people of North Carolina."

Graham's health had been failing for years, and after he retired, he was in and out of the hospital battling pneumonia and other ailments. He spent his last year at Mayview Convalescent Center in Raleigh, where visitors sometimes waited in line to see him.

Once an imposing figure who stood 6 feet 3 and weighed well more than 200 pounds, Graham was frail and thin and used a wheelchair by the time he died. But friends say he never lost the spark that made him legendary.

"When I walked in his room the other day, I said, 'What in the hell are you doing laying in here when there are sick people out there that need this space?' " said Jim Devine, Graham's longtime press secretary. "He said, 'You son of a ... You ain't never gonna change, and you ain't never going to heaven.' "

They spent the rest of the visit talking politics, a topic that always held Graham's interest.

In his prime, Graham was part folk hero, part savvy deal-maker. Governors came and went while he served longer than any other state agriculture chief in the country.

He built an empire even as the number of farms in the state declined from 188,000 in 1965 to fewer than 50,000 in 2000, his last year in office. When Graham took office, the Department of Agriculture had about 600 employees. By the time he left, he had more than 1,300 employees in 17 divisions and a $60 million annual budget.

Agriculture's champion

During his tenure, tobacco gave way to pork and poultry, and agriculture increasingly fell under the control of large companies, while family farms struggled.

Graham supported agribusiness and criticized environmental regulations, earning him the support of big businessmen such as Wendell Murphy, who made a fortune building a corporate hog industry in North Carolina.

"He was a friend of anybody in agriculture," Murphy said.

But small farmers all over the state, who saw Graham as an advocate for the little guy, were the driving force behind his victories in nine statewide elections, the first in 1964.

Graham got their votes by crisscrossing the state at a dizzying pace, attending countless meetings, shaking hands at country stores, following auctioneers up the aisles at tobacco warehouses. Each October, he moved his office to the state fairgrounds and worked the crowds at the State Fair, an event he relished.

Everywhere Graham went, wearing his trademark Stetson hat and size 15 1/2 alligator-skin boots, he treated acquaintances like old friends -- never forgetting a name or a face, always remembering to ask about a mama or daddy. If someone came to him with a problem, he never brushed it aside, his admirers say.

June Brotherton, Graham's spokeswoman from 1981 to 1989, remembers her boss carrying index cards in his pocket. He wrote down people's questions and concerns and, when he returned to the office, handed them to his employees. They had 48 hours to come up with an answer.

"He felt that was important because, by keeping your finger on the pulse of the people, you know what they need and what they expect from you," Brotherton said.

At the opening of the tobacco market each year, farmers would gather around Graham and take turns shaking his hand, treating him with a reverence accorded few modern politicians.

Billy Carter, a Moore County tobacco farmer, said Graham's ceaseless advocacy for farmers, and his genuine personality, won him boundless admiration.

"Tobacco, in particular, is something that was basically beyond the control of the state agriculture commissioner," Carter said. "But whenever there was an opportunity to advance the cause, he would do it."

Graham unabashedly took on anyone he thought was hurting North Carolina farmers. He once fired off a telegram to the U.S. secretary of agriculture, complaining about a brochure that recommended eating fewer eggs. And when Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano attacked cigarettes in the 1970s, Graham sent a telegram to President Jimmy Carter suggesting that Califano be fired.

A boyhood dream

James Allen Graham was born April 7, 1921, on a dairy farm in Rowan County. He came from a long line of Democrats, and he grew up milking cows before dawn and going to the Presbyterian church his family attended for generations.

He decided as a boy that he wanted to be agriculture commissioner, working to "solve the great problems that perpetually plagued the farmer," he wrote in his 1998 autobiography, "The Sodfather."

He met his wife, Helen Ida Kirk, a Rowan County home economics teacher, at the State Fair when he was a student at N.C. State University, then State College. After graduating in 1942, he worked as a teacher in Iredell County. In 1945, Agriculture Commissioner Kerr Scott made him supervisor of an agricultural research station in the mountains.

Still with an eye toward becoming agriculture commissioner, he moved his family to Raleigh in 1956 to manage the Raleigh Farmers Market.

In July 1964, Gov. Terry Sanford made Graham's boyhood dream come true when he appointed him to fill out the term of Agriculture Commissioner L.Y. Ballentine, who died in office. That November, Graham ran for office and won the seat.

As commissioner, Graham was responsible for agricultural research and marketing, regulating grocery store scales and gas pumps, for inspecting meat and poultry, for creating pesticide regulations and for running the N.C. State Fair.

He wasn't spared criticism. Some said he pandered to big business. Other said he had an overly cozy relationship with Strates Shows, the Florida carnival company to which Graham gave the contract to run the State Fair midway every year.

From 1986 to 1994, Strates made $833,500 in "bonus" money from state taxpayers. Graham said he hadn't studied the state's contract with Strates until The News & Observer reported the details. The contract was later renegotiated and the bonus dropped.

In the end, Graham's tenure was untainted by scandal -- unlike that of his successor, Meg Scott Phipps.

Phipps was convicted this month of several felonies arising from illegal fund raising in her 2000 campaign and is likely to spend five years in federal prison. She resigned in June, and the department is being run by an interim commissioner.

Graham started his political career working on the campaign of Phipps' grandfather, Kerr Scott, who was governor from 1949 to 1953. Devine said Graham was deeply disappointed in Phipps.

Contacted at Mayview a few months ago, Graham declined to comment about the Phipps scandal except to say, "I'm thankful I'm not involved in it."

Unlike Phipps, Graham didn't have to raise huge sums of money to win voters. He never faced a primary opponent, and he coasted to victory in election after election. He never stopped campaigning the old-fashioned way, spending little money but lots of time pressing flesh in small towns. He didn't resort to a television ad until his last election in 1996.

"I ain't perfect," he used to drawl. "But if my fanny don't do a good job, y'all can vote me outta here."

He cherished his two daughters, Alice and Laura, and his wife, Helen, who died of Alzheimer's disease in 1999. But otherwise, his job was his life.

He worked almost every weekend, often traveling the length of the state in a day. He frequently put more than 100,000 miles a year on his state car. In 1990, he was hospitalized briefly for exhaustion.

"I believe every day is election day," Graham once said. "If you are going to do that, you've got to keep hustling."

His daughter, Alice Graham Underhill, a former state legislator, said her father never stopped loving people or loving life. But leaving his job wasn't easy.

"I don't think that he gave up," she said. "But I don't think he was someone who was destined to enjoy retirement."

Staff writer Kristin Collins can be reached at 829-4881 or kcollins@newsobserver.com.

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