A most unforgettable character, Jerry Graham, has died

Four or five years ago I promised, no, I threatened a friend of mine, that I was going to write his obituary and pay for its placement in the Arizona Republic. I did that, but Jerry is such a classic character I decided this was worth sharing with a broader audience. Besides, obituaries are hard to read in the newspaper. I hope you enjoy the story of my colorful friend.

Obituary for Jerry Graham

Jerry Graham (maybe) April15, 1933 (maybe)- April 28, 2016

You may have known known Jerry Graham. He was the smiling, mustachioed guy who often held court at the Starbucks Coffee shop in Fry’s at 90th and Via Linda from around 6 to 9 am. He’s the guy who knew your name or wondered why he didn’t. And if you were a woman or a child, he definitely knew who you were.

You might have known Jerry from Giants spring training where he used to handle parking and take tickets. Or you may have known him from his frequent haunts like Vito’s, Hiro Sushi or at the Brass Rail where he could find a really cheap breakfast. Finding a cheap, good meal was Jerry’s eternal search.

Jerry was especially nice to the ladies. He was so nice to the ladies he was married five times and had at least four live-in lovers. At one point he carried business cards that said “Catch and Release.” He did not fish. In his old age it was all about the chase. He could usually pull that sort of thing off without offending.

Jerry’s kindness was on display whenever he encountered children.  He was charming to them and connected with them in ways others could not. One little fellow came into Fry’s regularly. He routinely hid behind his parents. It took Jerry some time, some cool presents and genuine persistence, but before long the little boy would come running into his arms the moment he entered the coffee shop.

Another coffee shop habitué had a son with Down syndrome who visited from out of state a few times a year. The bond between Jerry and the young man was palpable and heartwarming. In the days before his death he said with deep feeling, “I love that boy.”

And then there were the rest of us. We didn’t fare so well. Jerry was king of the insult. “I’ve missed you, but what a nice feeling.”  Jerry could insult your looks, your interests, your politics, and your loved ones, but the insults were always followed by a loud joshing guffaw. And Jerry took as well as he gave. If you didn’t insult him upon walking into Fry’s, he feared he had offended you in some way. Months before his death he pointed to a guest and told his nurse, “We have never said a kind word to each other, but we are really good friends.”

Jerry came to Scottsdale 23 ago after spending much of his working life in the Bay area as a newspaper pressman for the Wall Street Journal and several other papers printed in the bay area. He said one year he gave his accountant 17 W2 forms from different newspapers.

Jerry had friends everywhere. Many of them visited in his nursing home room after he decided to enter hospice. Several said, “I have to go kiss the ring.” He was that kind of guy. One afternoon before his death, 17 people crowded into his small hospice room. He engendered that kind of loyalty. Most of those friends would tell you he is number one or two on their list of most unforgettable characters they have ever met.

Jerry’s laugh, his storytelling and his sharp wit would explain some of that, but mostly Jerry was a rogue, a caring, lovable, funny and more than a bit mysterious rogue.

When Jerry, with his checkered romantic past, would dispense marriage advice to troubled friends some would laugh uproariously. Those who were happily married recoiled in horror.  When he told about his days as a bookie and his father’s testimony before the Kefauver crime commission where he took the fifth, every eye widened. Jerry hated the mobster Mickey Cohen for driving his dad out of the LA syndicate world and railed about the terrible inaccuracies in the 2013 Cohen crime move “Gangster Squad.”

You always had a strong feeling Jerry knew what he was talking about, but you were never sure what was true and what was actually the work of a darned good storyteller.

The amusing thing about Jerry’s tales of being a bookmaker was that if you accompanied him to the racetrack you quickly realized he was the worst handicapper of all time. He couldn’t even read the Daily Racing Form, horse racing’s bible. That led some to believe that Jerry must have brought a different set of skills to the bookmaking operation.

An astute reader has figured out there are few specific dates here. We think he went into the Coast Guard at the age of 18. We think he lived in the Bay area for thirty years or so and at various times was a pressman, a haberdashery owner, a bowling alley proprietor and a bookmaker. He says he ran with athletes like the football player Joe Perry and he crossed paths with numerous other big names. As a child, he says he met a lot of the Hollywood stars his dad knew from the southern California race tracks.

Once on a St Patrick’s Day a few years ago, one of his buddies innocently asked if the name Graham was Irish or British. Jerry stopped abruptly, gave his friend a flabbergasted look and said “How would I know, that’s not the real name.”

That mysterious answer was an essential part of Jerry Graham’s charm. Nobody is sure exactly what is true and what isn’t, but that is perfectly okay. Jerry was funny and knew what being a friend was about. He was incredibly loyal, touched thousands, and did countless favors for people without ever seeking credit. If you needed a ride to the hospital or doctor’s office, Jerry had it for you.

Jerry had one last big surprise up his sleeve. This obituary was first written in mid-October of 2016, days after Jerry entered hospice. He was supposed to die within two weeks. Mysteriously Jerry lived seven more months and died peacefully in his sleep.

Jerry thought it was hilarious that he had several goody-bye parties. That devilish delight in confounding everybody is just one more of the many reasons why 17 people crowded into his room several months ago, and why there were a countless others who visited him in his last days. And, it is why many others will cry when they realize that a genuine one-of-a-kind character has passed from our midst.

Jerry Graham will be cremated and, always angling for one last nice trip, his ashes will be sent to Hawaii. He will be interred in the National Memorial Cemetery.

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