Ray Duckler: A man named Graf wrote us lots of graphs

  • Fred Graf

Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Fred Graf, who died last week at the age of 66, drove us nuts.

And you know what?

We appreciated it.

That’s because in an age of declining newspaper readership and drive-by, hurried TV journalism, Graf’s letters were a welcome distraction to our newsroom, showing he still had the patience to immerse himself in detailed reporting.

No one wrote more letters to the Monitor than Graf, and few, if any, subscribers cared more about the local content we provided.

And no matter how harsh the zinger, Graf signed each letter with, “Best wishes, Fred Graf.”

“He wrote to everyone,” Graf’s widow, Ann Graf, said Monday by phone. “He was very civic minded. He was well read, and he stayed abreast of a lot of things.”

Ann said her husband died of a heart attack in the wee hours last Thursday. He was a letter-writing machine. He wrote to the Monitor, the New York Times, the Union Leader, the Boston Globe, the Yale Daily News, even a periodical about bridge, his favorite game.

Some of his missives ran in our printed letters section, but most of Graf’s stuff was of the one-on-one nature, sent directly to the writer.

“He was one of those observers whose views provided a constant reminder of a couple of important thoughts for a local editor,” former Monitor editor Mike Pride wrote in an email. “One was that your readers are smart – they can analyze events. The other was that there are many ways, not just one or two, of looking at the same set of facts.”

Recently, Graf touched on politics, education, Halloween, the justice system, Pam Smart, the Senior Salute at St. Paul’s School, sexism at the Golden Globes, the Pentagon Papers, Annie Kuster, sexting, prize money in women’s tennis and so much more.

In a letter two months ago to Opinion Editor Dana Wormald, Graf had a suggestion to inject life into the  ghost town-like Steeplegate Mall:

“One real world idea is for the mall to recruit service businesses that will draw traffic to the mall.”

On Monday, we ran a story about live theater coming to the mall next month in hopes of attracting customers.

In short, Graf was a man of vision. So maybe it’s not surprising that he successfully lobbied for fluorinated drinking water in Manchester 16 years ago, according to Ann.

And maybe it’s not surprising that Graf, who worked for the Community Action Program and Child Health Services, wrote the first pilot-program grant for fuel assistance programs back in the 1970s.

“That’s a forerunner of what you see today that serves 25,000 families,” noted Ralph Littlefield, the longtime executive director of CAP. “He was one of those guys who would sit down and talk about lots of subjects. Fred always had an opinion.”

Criticism isn’t always easy to swallow, and newspaper people are a sensitive bunch. Graf kept us on our toes, creating a system of checks and balances rarely seen before in our newsroom.

No type of story was exempt from one of his critiques, be it news story, sports story, column or editorial.

Meanwhile, he remained a mystery, at least to many of us, including me. He was the local guy who wrote to us all the time, sometimes making our eyes roll.

Then his obituary came in. Yale was mentioned, as was Graf’s career as an unselfish advocate, a voice for those needing a leader.

“He liked to help people,” said his brother Brian Graf of Bow, who worked for the attorney general’s office for 22 years. “That’s what he did for a living, and he was intellectually curious about everything.”

George Wolford of New London, a professor at Dartmouth College for 47 years, was Graf’s longtime bridge partner, saying Graf was one of the best players in the state. They played Thursdays in New London, then, later, Wednesdays in Lebanon.

“He clearly cared about other people,” Wolford said. “If a bill passed that he thought would hurt disadvantaged children, he would get upset.”

Dig more and the man’s personality and passions continued to explode, well beyond just letter writing. Graf loved college hockey and attended Dartmouth College and University of New Hampshire games often.

He also loved folk music, and in fact hosted an annual mini folk festival, opening his home to 20 or so friends. One of his favorite invitees was Concord native Cosy Sheridan, who mixed humor with social consciousness and once played at Carnegie Hall.

“The consummate scholar in lots of different areas,” Wolford said, referring to his friend.

Brian Graf mentioned his brother’s talent in volleyball and tennis. He also said Fred’s first wife, Tricia, died of cancer, leaving the man with lots to say quiet for a segment of his life.

“Very difficult,” Brian said. “It was a painful period, painful for all of us. She was great with my kids.”

Once Graf hit 50, however, online dating led him to Ann. They went to dinner at Veano’s on Loudon Road, and the couple continued to go there for the anniversary of their first date, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

“He did kind and thoughtful things under the radar,” Ann said. “That’s why so many people thought very highly of him.”

During the early years of their marriage, Graf used snail mail to write his letters. Thanks to Ann, he switched to email.

“He realized it was faster and then he wrote even more letters,” Ann said, a soft laugh emerging. “When we talked about events and there was something that needed a correction, I could look at him and say, ‘Sweetheart, I feel a letter coming on.’ ”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter