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Jim Graham Remains Advocate For Farmers To End

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Jim Graham: From Farmers' Market To 'Sodfather'
RALEIGH, N.C. — He was known as the "Commish" or the "Sodfather."

Mostly, Jim Graham was a friend to farmers and the state's ultimate agricultural pitchman for everything from the State Fair and tobacco to poultry and pickles.

And, as he said in every speech, he loved his job.

Graham died Thursday at age 82. He spent 36 years as North Carolina's agriculture commissioner, serving longer than anyone else in that role in the United States.

Graham, who retired in January 2001, died of complications from pneumonia at Mayview Convalescent Home, said his daughter, Alice Underhill.

"I think he was a very special public servant that really loved people," said Underhill, a former state legislator from New Bern.

Prior to his funeral Sunday will be a visitation Saturday night from 6-9 at Brown-Wynne Funeral Home on St. Mary's Street in Raleigh. The funeral will be at 2 p..m Sunday at First Baptist Church on N. Salisbury Street in Raleigh.

His family will receive friends in the church fellowship hall following Sunday's service.

A book of condolences will be available for the public to sign in the State Agriculture building Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. The book will go to Graham's family.

"From Manteo to Murphy today, people are mourning the loss of a dear friend, a champion of farmers and a public servant in the truest sense of the word," Erskine Bowles said. "Few people in the history of our state have been as colorful, as beloved, as cherished and admired as Jim Graham. Jim was a mentor to me and a generation of public servants -- and he always did it the right way, with honesty, integrity, hard work, and true and unconditional love for his job and for our great state.

"Jim could have been governor, a U.S. Senator, and with his personality, he could have run for President. But farming was his passion and agriculture his love, and no one deserves more credit for making North Carolina one of the richest and most diversified agricultural states in the nation than does Jim Graham."

During his time in office, Graham saw North Carolina's agriculture industry change from one dominated by tobacco to one driven by pork and poultry and the growing sweet potato and cotton markets.

"We have lost one of our most dedicated public servants who will always be valued for his compassion and hard work," Gov. Mike Easley said. "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 preached crop diversity from the beginning, all the while praising tobacco farmers and defending them from attacks by anti-smoking forces.

He was a giant of a man and known by everyone for his ever-present Stetson hat, cigar and cowboy boots.

In his later years, old age shrank his body, but never his image.

Those in the business trusted that Graham would do whatever he could to promote North Carolina crops, from taking a bite out of tobacco leaves, wiping his brow with the leaf and injecting into conversations the state's rank in production of pickles, pigs, poultry and mountain trout.

He said he worried that people did not respect farmers and believed food comes from the store instead of the fields.

"North Carolina has lost a great leader," Interim Agriculture Commissioner Britt Cobb said. "Agriculture has lost a passionate and vocal champion."

When Graham ended his speeches with "I love my job," many adoring audiences of farmers would say it with him.

That love earned Graham his nickname and a reputation as a campaigner who could not be beaten. The few who tried to challenge him were trounced at the polls.

"He's the best politician I know," former Gov. Jim Hunt said in December 2000. "He's like a wonderful salesman who represents his company so well that everybody wants to buy our products."

Once, Graham handed a surprised visitor to his office a frozen duck, kept with other products in a freezer in an anteroom so he could dole them out.

His generous spirit shone through when he tried to pay for the groceries of a man fumbling for his wallet in a check-out line.

Always colorful, Graham once kissed a mule's rear end in payment of a lost political bet.

In 2000, Graham said he would retire to spend more time with his wife, Helen. She died a month later from complications of Alzheimer's disease, and several candidates made plans to run for his post.

Graham, who owned a 240-acre cattle farm in Rowan County, vowed that he would stay busy after retirement, adding that he might learn to use a computer for more than just e-mail.

"I'm going to try to master it," Graham said in his trademark rumbling tones. "You're never too old. Just don't overlook the fact that you can't eat those (computer) chips for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

But the ex-commissioner was in and out of the hospital over the past two years and had moved from his Raleigh home into the convalescent center.

Graham's favorite job during his tenure was presiding over the state fair. He met his wife at an artificial waterfall on the grounds. The old waterfall was torn down, but a new one was erected and named for Helen Graham.

He said the fair exposes children who have never seen a farm to animal and product displays, hooking them with an exhibit where they can hold a baby chick or duckling.

This year, just a few days after a hospital treatment for pneumonia, his former secretary, Donna Creech, picked him up at the convalescent home and drove him to the fair. Creech said he called her the next day and wanted to go again.

Every year, there is a special attraction just inside the main gate of the North Carolina State Fair. In 2000 -- the fair's 133rd year -- it was a display honoring Graham, who prowled the fairgrounds every day from opening to closing during his tenure.

The exhibit included a mock-up of his office -- down to a cigar in the desk's ashtray. Visitors followed footprints resembling Graham's size 15 1/2 EEEE cowboy boots around the exhibit of farm products.

"After being in that office for 36 years, I hate to leave it," Graham said. "I have a passion for it. I never dread going to work in the morning."

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