Remembering Chief Graham
‘When he did something, he did it to the fullest’ Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham loved his family, his life, his community, his job, friends say
Greg Graham will be eulogized today at the First Baptist Church of Ocala with hundreds in attendance. There will be tributes to his 33 years of service to the community. It was an extraordinary career during which he rose from police officer to undercover drug agent to deputy chief to chief of police.
Graham, 58, died Sunday morning when his Cessna plane crashed into a field east of the Dunnellon airport.
Born in North Carolina and raised in Gainesville, Graham went to work for Ocala Police Department as a patrolman in 1983 for $250 a week.
But his life when he took off the badge and the gun was extraordinary, too, according to those who knew him best.
“When he went and did something, he did it to the fullest,” said Raymond Andrews, Graham’s longtime friend and barefoot water-skiing partner. “Whether it was barefooting, or diving, or whatever … he always wanted to be the best.”
Another one of the so-called Breakfast Barefoot Boys – because they regularly barefoot water skied on Lake Weir in the early mornings – was banker Tom Ingram. He said there was no question Graham was a daredevil who loved taking risks.
“As he would describe it, he was an adrenaline junkie,” Ingram said. “He loved to go fast. Skydiver. Endurance barefoot water skier. Motorcyclist. Flyer. He maximized everything to the fullest. It’s what made him so fun to be around.”
Just how maximized? Graham and his fellow “barefooters,” as they call themselves, traveled the country participating in endurance barefoot skiing events. Andrews remembers their first in Austin, Texas, years ago. They showed up, never having entered such a competition, and they beat dozens of other teams to place third.
Kevin Camp, another one of the Barefoot Boys, remembers the Austin trip and the 22-mile endurance run. He said Graham always wanted to be the last one to let go of the skiing rope.
“Oh my gosh he was competitive,” Camp said. “Greg was the best – the best barefooter I’ve ever skied with. He was also one of the most real people I’ve ever known. He was a charming guy. When Greg wanted to turn it on, he did – and he was genuine.”
Fun-loving as Graham was, those same friends say, his job was never out of mind.
Pat Gilligan knew Graham for nearly three decades, a friendship that started when Gilligan was named the city attorney for Ocala. Gilligan will give a eulogy at Graham’s funeral service.
“If I ask people to raise their hands if they have his personal cell phone number, I bet 90 percent will raise their hands,” Gilligan said. “That is so telling.”
Gilligan said he and Graham would go to Gator football and basketball games together and Graham would receive phone calls throughout the day.
“He was never off the job,” Gilligan said. “There were no working hours. It was continuous. He was never bothered; it was so much a part of his life. It was just what he did. He was always so calm, so patient, he was working.”
Back to the cell phone number.
“I knew I wasn’t special,” Gilligan said. “The number of citizens who have his personal cell number was astounding. And they were just regular people. That’s the beauty of Greg Graham. You weren’t special. Everybody had it. I think he thrived on it, frankly.
“I doubt there’s a pastor in Marion County that doesn’t have his phone number. I doubt there’s an organization in Marion County that doesn’t have his cell number. He just wanted to be available. It was his job.”
Gilligan remembers the first time he met Graham, shortly after he became city attorney. Former Police Chief Lee McGhee invited the new city attorney to sit in on a command staff meeting. There were about 15 people in the room, all but one wearing police uniforms. The one, Graham, had long hair, an earring, flip flops, shorts and a T-shirt on – part of his undercover look.
“He’s so baby-faced – looked like he was in high school,” Gilligan remembered. “I said, ‘This is a cop?’
“Then he started talking. I was so impressed. His confidence. His bearing. Everybody’s listening to him – and I’m impressed.”
A couple years later Gilligan signed his kids up for T-ball, and Graham was the coach.
“He made it great fun. All the kids loved him. He made everything fun. It’s the same guy that was in the meeting.”
Graham would climb through the ranks of OPD, and Gilligan, who stepped aside as city attorney just last week after 27 years, said he and the chief developed a good working relationship that evolved into a close friendship.
“He was literally the best city employee I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve dealt with a lot of really good ones,” Gilligan said. “He had a natural authority to him when he talked to people. I think people respected him for that.”
It was that leadership quality that led Mayor Kent Guinn to hire him shortly after Guinn became mayor in 2011. Graham had left the city in 2008, when he was deputy chief, to become police chief in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. When Ocala’s then-Chief Sam Williams resigned in 2012, Guinn called Graham.
“I asked him if he was interested,” Guinn said. “He asked me how the weather was down here. I told him it was sunny and 70. He said it was minus-15 and there was 3 feet of snow on the ground in Cedar Rapids. That was it. He said he was ready to come back.”
Guinn said it was Graham’s leadership skills and personality, which he had seen on display when he served on the City Council before becoming mayor, that made him recruit Graham back to Ocala.
“The people liked him,” the mayor said about Graham’s relationship with the OPD staff. “And he could bring everyone together. He knew the mechanics.”
Graham’s contract was up for renewal this year – it was just renewed last week – and he had considered retiring. But when it came time to decide, he opted to go at least another two-year term.
“He loved being police chief,” Camp said. “But you know what he really loved? He loved his people. He loved bringing in people and training them.”
Those who knew him said Graham had two overriding rules in life: do the right thing and treat other people the way you would want to be treated.
“I admired him so much, how he treated people,” Gilligan said. “It was always, ‘What do you need from me to help you.’ “He never complained. It never bothered him.”
Narvella Haynes, a longtime community organizer, knew Graham for much of his career in Ocala and worked with him on numerous projects, including Mad Dads, Weed & Seed and other crime-fighting initiatives. The two organized a 2014 prayer vigil to help mobilize black pastors to help police get witnesses to several shootings in the black community to come forward. An atheist group sued the city over the vigil, but Haynes remembers Graham for his willingness to try different approaches to problem-solving and for his kindness to others.
“He always said we have to do our jobs but treat people the way you’d want to be treated,” she said.
Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board are working to determine the cause of the plane crash that killed Graham. NTSB officials say it will take about two weeks to issue a preliminary report.
Meanwhile, a community mourns. And remembers.
“Greg died the way he lived,” Camp said. “He would not want to die in a bed. He would have wanted to die doing something he loved. And he loved flying that plane.”
Funeral services for Graham will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at First Baptist Church of Ocala. Graham is survived by his wife, Amy, and three children, Tyler, Mark and Kalin. For those unable to attend, the service may be viewed on Tribucast at this link: https://client.tribucast.com/tcid/199912298