Former Charity ‘Grand Dame,’ at 93, Enjoying Her Return to Workforce

Posted By Mike Padgett

Dec. 10, 2009

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – This year’s holiday season, for me, arrived in early December. The gift began taking shape a few days ago while listening to Ann Graham voice her optimism and hope.

I asked to meet her when I learned that she had returned to work at a law firm to help pay her bills. Graham, at 93, is about 30 years beyond the usual retirement age.

Graham represents a growing number of older Americans who are going back to work or delaying retirement. Some have no choice. Their investments, including Graham’s, have been decimated by staggering losses on Wall Street.

Despite her misfortunes, Graham displays hope in much of what she says and does. She has had her rough patches, like many others. But for anyone who listens to Graham’s words, I mean really listens, her words become gifts.

Our paths crossed at a time of year when eternal hope is key to the holiday celebration.

I arrive for our meeting a few minutes early. I stand in the waiting room of the Rose Law Group in Scottsdale where Graham works three days a week. It was a quiet Thursday afternoon.

Graham enters the room. “Mike? Pleasure to meet you,” she says, extending her hand.

Graham is dressed professionally. She carries a black Prada purse with a gold chain. I am about to learn that behind her disarming smile and the sparkle in her eyes is a former investor in a poker palace in California. She later became a grand dame of charity fundraising in metro Phoenix.

More on those chapters in her life later. Today, she is a hard-charging optimist, even after recent six-figure financial losses.

“Where shall we go?” she asks.

We enter the law firm’s conference room and sit at the custom-made conference table.

‘Office Muse’

Graham is rare among office employees. Not only is she a youthful 93, but her business card says “Office Muse.” The title conjures up visions of a confidante in a flowing white toga offering words of wisdom, strength and grace, especially in difficult times.

After listening to Graham for 90 minutes, I saw that I was right. In another life, Graham would wear a toga. She knows much about people because she’s seen many types, good and bad.

Humor, respect for others and compassion are important to Graham. And she believes that for every door that closes in someone’s life, another one opens, sometimes with greater opportunities.

In the Rose Law Group offices, Graham is the designated backup employee who receives any overflow filing work from her new colleagues. Many are half or a third of her age.

Many of the people Graham knew or worked with during her younger years are gone. Actuarial tables show that of every 100,000 women born in the United States the year of her birth, 1916, only 15 percent are alive today.

But Graham always has been a survivor. She was born into a Slavic family in Berkeley, Calif. She tells me about catching the flu when she was 18 months old, and that she wasn’t expected to live, according to what she learned from her mother.

Russian interpreter

In her younger years, because she became fluent in her family’s native language, Graham dreamed of becoming a Russian interpreter. She attended business college, and she worked for a few years as a secretary.

During World War II, when she worked as a secretary in the shipyards in the Bay area, she helped her employer’s wife christen a battleship with a bottle of champagne.

After the war, she worked for a cosmetics company, traveling 11 western states to train other employees. Her father died in 1952, so she decided to leave California. She and a boyfriend traveled in the United States and Mexico by car for several months. This was before construction of the U.S. interstate highway system later in the 1950s.

Graham and her boyfriend finally settled in Los Angeles. She used some of the inheritance from her father to buy a restaurant and bar. It became popular with blue-collar workers, so she kept a large amount of cash in the safe to cash their payroll checks.

The money stash became too tempting for a friend, who eventually robbed her. He became one of her regrettable memories. If Graham held any animosity for him, it didn’t show on her face or in her words.

‘Poker palace’ venture

It was during this period, in the late 1950s, that she learned golf. She played 10 under par, and she had three holes in one. During one game, a golfing buddy offered to introduce her to connections opening “poker palace” businesses in Gardena, Calif. She invested $10,000, joining judges and lawyers who were among the 30 or so other investors.

Graham eventually sold the restaurant and bar. Graham met another man, and they moved to Phoenix in the early 1960s, where they married. Over the next few decades, Graham became active in raising funds for nonprofit groups and charities in metropolitan Phoenix.

Financially, before the poker venture went out of business, Graham’s investment treated her well for several years. She used much of her poker venture income to buy stock. But those Wall Street investments eventually went sour, as did her marriage.

More recently, Graham lost $100,000 when a Phoenix businessman committed suicide. She says she lost another $200,000 to friends. She adds that after her divorce, she found herself forced to return to work.

Several times during our 90-minute meeting, Graham said she regretted not keeping a diary. The name of the battleship she helped christen and other details and dates have faded, like mist.

Listening to her, I imagine her growing up and entering the work force in the 1930s. It was a time before television, freeways, road rage and junk food. Doctors made house calls. Radio and newspapers were the major news sources. Snail mail was the only mail.

Fan of opera, newspapers

Graham enjoyed going to the opera. She remembers rushing for copies of the San Francisco newspapers every day as soon as they hit the newstands. Her favorite columnists were Herb Caen, who wrote about the city for decades, and travel guru Stan Delaplane.

She describes those years as a more genteel time when people were more respectful toward others. Rude behavior was a social faux pas. Favorite pastimes included visiting neighbors on their porches and enjoying Bay area dance bands in major hotels.

“I’m so glad I was raised in my era,” she says. “What do kids today have to look forward to? War. No jobs. They’re going to keep outsourcing. You can’t trust your neighbors.”

As Graham recounts important times her life, I am transported into a different era. I imagine the busy and noisy shipyards where she worked during the 1940s. I could almost hear the poker dealers shuffle their cards across the green felt tables.

Graham’s positive attitude is admirable. She believes negative thoughts are harmful to personal growth. She enjoys an uplifting sermon in church. And she believes that setbacks are followed by opportunities.

Like the unexpected call she received about that land she bought decades ago in Riverside, Calif. That call led to her selling her share in 2008, receiving some needed income.

Job offer renewed

One day last summer, she joined Jordan Rose, managing partner of Rose Law Group, for lunch. The two have known each other for several years. Rose had asked her a couple years ago if she would come to work for her. At that time, Graham was financially comfortable, so she declined. But as the economic times have changed, so has Graham’s situation.

At lunch, Rose repeated her offer, adding that it would be part time and that she would arrange for another part-time employee who lives near Graham in central Phoenix to drive her to and from work in Scottsdale. Graham accepted the offer.

Graham remembers Rose and her staff discussing a title for her. “Office Super Mom” was offered. Graham rejected that idea. She had her own suggestion.

“I said about my title, I’m the office flunky because I do everything that nobody else wants to do,” she says. “I said I love it. All my life I’ve wanted to be a flunky and not have a worry or care. That’s perfect. And they said no, they’re not going to call me that.

“And then one of the girls says,” Graham pauses, handing her business card to me. It reads, “Office Muse.”

“Is that darling?” she says. “I love it. Everybody who sees this card wants one.”

Recites psalms

Graham works four or five hours three days a week. For her daily inspiration, she recites the 23rd Psalm, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and the 91st Psalm, which during World War I became known as the Soldier’s Psalm.

Rose first met Graham in the 1990s. Rose was in law school.

“I met her through some involvement I had with the Scottsdale Symphony or the Phoenix Opera,” Rose says. “She’s kind of the grand dame of Phoenix in charity stuff, or she certainly was at the time.”

In Rose’s words, Graham is a rare individual. “If you came to work with anything other than a fantastic mood and you look at Ann, who is always happy, motivated, positive and working hard, you can’t do anything other than be productive and positive and hard working.”

Rose says she and her partners and staff are inspired by Graham’s inner strength and her positive outlook.

“It keeps her optimistic,” Rose says. “While she may have worries just like all of us do, she puts the thrill of life above any worry.”

Graham says working again and receiving a paycheck makes her feel like she’s in her second childhood. It also reminds her of her own belief that with every negative, such as her financial challenges, a positive will follow. This time, the positives are her friendship with Rose and her new job, which she started a few weeks ago.

“I get so choked up when I think of how the Man upstairs has looked after me,” she says. “Why didn’t I keep a diary? I’ve had such a great life.”

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Dec 10th, 2009

One Comment to 'Former Charity ‘Grand Dame,’ at 93, Enjoying Her Return to Workforce'

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  1. Shallie Bey said,

    Mike,

    Thanks so much for pointing me to this article about Ann Graham. I connect with her in so many ways. My parents met in San Francisco during World War II. Both of them would have been a bit older than Ms Graham, my father being born in 1899 and my mother in 1909.

    I can imagine that my father’s post war work in the shipyards might have been the same place Ms Graham worked. Despite this imaginative stretch of mine, there is a factual connection of importance.

    Many of us baby boomers are finding ourselves going into semi-retirement as an alternative to traditional retirement. Some are working and some are becoming baby boomer entrepreneurs. Ms Graham is sort of the poster child for being our big sister and helping us know that there are still important things to be done when we pass age 65.

    Thanks for an inspiring story.

    Shallie
    Shallie Bey
    Smarter Small Business Blog

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