More than 500 people honor former Florida senator, governor Bob Graham at old Capitol

U.S. Senator Bob Graham on Saturday, Oct. 15, 1998.
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“Step, step, step, step.” Nine military honor guards lifted the late Bob Graham’s closed casket up the two flights of stairs just past 10:30 a.m. on Friday, in Florida’s old Capitol, where he served as governor before the current one was built directly behind it.

The Florida A&M University Gospel Choir sang “Walk in the Light,” by Aretha Franklin.

Graham — a former Florida governor, U.S. senator, state representative and state senator — died on April 16 at age 87. Flowers meant to evoke iconic Florida landscape paintings and symbolize his environmental stewardship adorned his casket at the Tallahassee lie-in-state ceremony: orchids, magnolias, kumquats, Spanish moss.

Graham’s daughter, former Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham, followed behind a few minutes later with her husband, Steve Hurm, and together they led about 50 family members and close friends in paying their respects.

Graham’s widow, Adele Graham, came to the old Capitol’s second floor rotunda by way of elevator and, after her own tribute, sat in a chair next to her husband’s casket for the entire ceremony, which ended past 1:30 p.m., going more than half an hour long.

From that chair, Adele Graham greeted more than 500 people.

It was chaotic outside. The current Florida Capitol is under construction and many entrance points are blocked off. Parking is a nightmare. Before the procession began, reporters wondered aloud whether anyone would find their way inside. But they did. And inside those historic walls was a who’s-who of old Tallahassee, a time when Republicans and Democrats were both colleagues and friends.

Former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, 89, who served after Graham, said: “He was so easy to work with, whether he agreed with you or not. You never left with an unpleasant feeling about the meeting.”

Martinez said he had lunch with Graham in Tampa just before the pandemic, along with Adele Graham and Gwen Graham. “I thanked him, because I think he’s the first one that really put environment on the front burner, and the Everglades in particular.”

About the political era in which he and Graham served, Martinez added: “It was a different time. It wasn’t as contentious as it is today…. You can’t go back. That’s gone. But I’m glad that I was in public life for 20 years, yesterday, and not today.”

Other public officials who paid their respects to Graham: Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey; Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz; former Republican Lt. Gov. Bobby Brantley; Tallahassee-based Democratic state Rep. Allison Tant; Democratic Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey; former Tallahaseee-based Democratic state Sen. Loranne Ausley; Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikki Fried, and former Republican state Senate President Jim Scott.

“We were seat mates where they sat you two-by-two in the old Capitol,” said Scott, 82, after paying his respects. “We became great friends for our whole career.”

Scott shared a memory from their time as seat mates. Graham was getting ready to run for governor and Democratic state Sen. Dempsey Barron was “razzing him” about “his hair. It was kind of slicked back.”

Barron said, “‘You’ll never get elected governor with that hair. And so, about the second time he said it, [Graham] leaned over to me and said, ‘What do you think about what he said?’ I said, ‘I think he’s right.’ I swear he changed his hair,” Scott said laughing.

At 9:30 in the morning, an hour-and-a-half before the public ceremony began, Ramon Day, 69, was standing by himself outside the old Capitol’s North entrance, under scaffolding because of all the construction. He’d driven over from Jacksonville on Thursday to make sure he was not only on time, but “first in line.”

Day was chief of staff to Democratic Congressman Charlie Bennett when he met Graham, who had joined the U.S. Senate in 1987. Later, when Graham was running for re-election in 1998, Day was part of a campaign group called “Young Friends of Bob Graham,” and remembered Graham telling them in Jacksonville about how his car broke down on the way to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital when Adele was about to give birth to one of his daughters.

“He was trying to push the Volkswagen up Magnolia Circle up here, and somebody came and rescued him,” Day said. “I thought that was a really funny anecdote, that he would share that, a vulnerable moment like that. And that just has always stuck with me.”

Kim Barnhill, 68, from Tallahassee, said she met Graham when he was governor through her friend, Betty Lantaff, wife of former Democratic U.S. Congressman Bill Lantaff, who was friends with Adele Graham from Miami. Betty moved to Tallahassee after her husband’s death in 1970.

“Whenever they had a party, we would go and just assist the family with errands and that sort of thing,” said Barnhill. “We were at the governor’s mansion quite often for Christmas parties, Gwen’s wedding, we helped decorate for that.”

Barnhill recalled at one particular event during a December open house in the early 1980s, she was eight months pregnant. “The governor said, ‘When are you due?’ And I said, ‘January the 8th.’ And three hours later, when Betty and I were leaving, he looked at me, and pointed, and said, ‘January the 8th,’ right?’”

She added: “And that was just Bob Graham.”