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Hundreds Turn Out To Pay Last Respects To Graham

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Jim Graham: From Farmers' Market To 'Sodfather'
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina has lost a lovable leader.

Commissioner of Agriculture for an amazing 36 years, Jim Graham died Thursday from complications of pneumonia. At a Saturday visitation and Sunday memorial service, hundreds paid tribute to a man called the "Sodfather" known for his Stetson hats and handshakes.

The public got a chance to say goodbye Sunday at First Baptist Church, a place that was the only priority higher than family and farmers for Graham. The memorial came a day after many of those closest to Graham celebrated his life.

Graham called life a "curiosity," and anyone who knew him knew his sagely sayings. He quoted them. He lived them.

"I think so many of us were saddened," interim Agriculture Commissioner Britt Cobb said, "and now we're into the stage of celebrating his life and sharing stories that happened with the commissioner."

Said former Graham employee Angie Crone of the weekend events: "It is a celebration. It's wonderful. Everybody is remembering Commissioner Graham.

"It's like old home week, somebody said -- old friends and new friends alike."

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison was among those who paid their last respects this weekend.

"He knew everybody," Harrison said of Graham. "He could talk to everybody, from the White House down to the street. He was just a remarkable person."

Flags at all state buildings have been at half-staff. A wreath hangs on the Agriculture Building -- a tribute to Graham's 58 years of public service.

Graham's legacy will live on through his personal contact with people like Harry Daniel -- Graham's assistant for five years.

"His final comments many, many days as I left the office were: 'Well, Harry, everything's going to be all right,'" Daniel said. "And most of the time, he was right. Everything's going to be all right."

About 900 people attended Sunday's memorial service, including the state's political elite as well as plain folk.

"A living legend must now be handed over to the history books," said the Rev. Jay Daniel Day, pastor of First Baptist Church, located just down the street from the office Graham used for more than three decades.

Day spoke from behind a podium adorned with a painting of Graham posing in his ever-present Stetson hat with a cigar in his hand, over a marquee of the North Carolina State Fair. One of Graham's favorite jobs was presiding over the fair.

The pastor recalled the first time he met Graham, who walked up to him with his arm outstretched and something in his hand.

"He said: 'If you're going to be my new preacher, you've got to go to the State Fair. Here's tickets,'" Day said as the church was filled with laughter.

Attending the memorial service were Gov. Mike Easley, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, U.S. Rep Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., and former governors Jim Holshouser and Bob Scott.

Also in the crowd was N.C. State football coach Chuck Amato.

"I thought the service was a great celebration of a great man," said Easley, who wore a red button on his lapel that read "Jim Graham is my friend."

"He campaigned on personality and governed on instinct," Easley added.

Graham's down-home attitudes won over farmers and the broad electorate, who gave him wide margins of victory every four years even as North Carolina became a two-party state in the 1980s. He was a Democrat, but his memorial attracted politicians from both sides of the aisle.

"Jim never in his life apologized for being a good strong Democrat, but he also never let that get in the way of working across party lines when it meant making a difference for the people of North Carolina," said U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

Said former said former Lt. Governor Bob Jordan, who campaigned with Graham: "He was one of God's great gifts to mankind, probably the most suited person for the office he was holding than anybody I've ever known."

Graham is survived by his daughters, Alice Underhill of New Bern and Connie Brooks of Nashville, Tenn., and seven grandchildren.

"All public servants are measured by Jim Graham," Cobb said. "He was just a man of great integrity, great vision, tremendous passion. He truly left a legacy for many of us to follow."