by Scott Kindberg
May 26, 1996
Graham Finds Community With Kids
How's that for hitting the trifecta?
"I was dirt poor," Ron Graham said.
But his mom, trying to support a family of three boys, dropped her eldest son off at the Y anyway on her way to work. She didn't want him on the streets.
An athletic child, even at the tender age of 7, Graham wanted, in the worst way, to play basketball with the other kids. But how can you work on your jump shot when you don't have enough money to get in the door?
Youth director Spiro Bello noticed. He also cared. So much so that he made Graham an offer. If the youngster would hang up coats for an hour each Saturday morning, Bello would allow him to get in the gym in time to play with the other kids.
This arrangement allowed Graham to work for his membership. What it taught him was responsibility. What it gave him was a role model.
Fatherless kids need that.
"Spiro Bello was my hero," Graham said. "He was one of the first white men I'd come in contact with. He just loved kids. If he hadn't been around, I don't know what I would have done."
Bello was the first of many men who had an impact on Graham as he grew up. Later, Bobo Hunter, Herb Cunningham, Terry Ransbury, Russ Diethrick, Frank Hyde and George Bataitis filled the void that Graham so desperately needed filled. He listened to them, learned from them and emulated them.
"It seemed like every phase of my life there was a man there," Graham says now. "They said, 'I'll take you to the next step.' It allowed me not to fall through the cracks."
It also left an indelible impression on Graham. In fact, for most of the last two decades, Graham, now 48, has been doing what his role models did for so many years - caring about kids.
It Began With The Striders
In 1979, Graham walked into the sports department at the Post-Journal with an idea in his head that just wouldn't go away. He asked Hyde, then the sports editor, if he would print a news release concerning a new organization he and the late Dan Feather were forming - the Chautauqua Striders Summer Track and Field Development Program.
The idea was aimed at helping young people reach their potential both on the track and in the classroom. "Champions On and Off the Field" was the slogan.
From those beginnings, the group grew to 300 by the late 1980's and numbers between 600-700 today.
During Graham's tenure as the Striders' executive director/coach (1979-1990), a dozen area athletes earned Division 1 scholarships - in fact, Karen Bakewell of Jamestown was an All-American in 1986 - and many more went on to compete in Divisions 2 and 3.
But Graham wasn't concerned only with the collegiate prospects, according to Carol Lorenc, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.
She remembers accompanying Graham and a busload of kids to a track meet in Buffalo where a promising runner from the Striders was going to get a chance to compete against superior talent. Intellectually, the little girl knew that she would have difficulty competing with her more talented peers. Emotionally, she wasn't ready to accept failure.
"The other girls were out like a shot and immediately outdistanced her," Lorenc recalled. "The whole audience watched this little girl and you could see her start to sob. But she didn't give up."
"And by the time the girl reached the finish line, Graham was there waiting," Lorenc said. "He scooped up the girl and jogged around the track with her in his arms."
"By the time he put her down, she was laughing," Lorenc said. "That's why he's the epitome of a coach. That is why the kids give their all for this man."
One of Graham's greatest accomplishments while with the Striders was his dogged pursuit of a dream he dared tell a few people about more than a decade ago. That dream became the vision of an ad hoc committee comprised of Diethrick, Lorenc, Mike Lyons, Joe Johnson, Bob Ostrom and Dave Shepherd.
"I remember Ron had us in for a luncheon meeting and he had a little piece of rectangular material," Lorenc said. "It was a piece of artificial track surface. You know the rest of the story."
Together, that group made Strider Field - the state-of-the-art sports complex at Jefferson School on Martin Road in Jamestown - a reality in 1990. The all-weather track and artificially surfaced football field make Strider Field one of the finest facilities in the Northeast.
As it turned out, Strider Field was a gift to Chautauqua County from the Striders, who secured grants from the Gebbie, Sheldon and Carnahan-Jackson Foundations to make it possible. Now athletes from throughout the area can use the complex.
"When people decide that an idea makes sense, it can happen," said Shepherd, a legislative aide for state assemblyman Bill Parment. "The magic with Ron is that he always wants something for the kids."
"Each of us had a little piece of the answer."
Graham resigned as the Striders' executive director in 1990 - "After Strider Field was built, that was kind of the climax for me," - but the organization, which started with a group of 35 youth in 1979, continues to grow.
"I had to prove it was good work and beyond Ron Graham," Graham said. "There were a lot of people who were making the organization run."
But he didn't stay away long from the sport he loved.
Jets Take Off
With the help of Feather and Jesse Thomas of Dunkirk, Graham formed a new track club in 1991. Called the Western New York Jets, the girls-only club branches out to areas throughout Western New York, including as far north as Buffalo.
Graham's prize pupil these days is Marquita Knight, a senior who attends Nichols School. A sprinter, Knight is headed to Tennessee, a national power, in the fall.
"Her mother called me one night out of the blue and said that Marquita really liked to run - and she was wondering if she could run with our club," Graham said.
After watching Knight run once, Graham had seen all he needed to see.
That was in 1992.
By last summer, Knight was turning in some eye-opening times.
"She ran some pretty good times, as did some of the other kids on the club," Graham said.
His work was paying off, too. And it was being noticed.
A new career was about to be launched.
Last October, Graham received a call from Sharon West, the executive director of the Buffalo Housing Authority.
She asked Graham to draw up a proposal for a summer track and field development program for boys and girls, 10-14, who live in the projects of the inner city.
Graham did just that and the program was eventually accepted and will begin in about a month.
The eight-week development program in Buffalo, which runs from July 1 through August 26, will be supervised by Graham, with the help of a coaching staff.
Youths will learn the basics of proper warm-up, flexibility, aerobic conditioning and event specifics. In addition to the athletic activities, youths will also participate in special activities each week that focus on how to stay strong and healthy.
Development practices will be held each Monday, with meets set for each Wednesday. The program will be conducted at War Memorial Stadium. At the end of the summer, youths will be recognized at an awards banquet.
When not teaching them skills on the track, Graham's staff will conduct drug and alcohol awareness at each housing site.
"We'll talk about what it means to be drug-free," Graham said. "We'll use the D.A.R.E. program through the police department."
Eventually, he would like to see the program include a major track club, similar to what happened with the Striders.
"We won't add academics until after we're evaluated," Graham said. "We'll add academics and a work-force prep component if all goes well."
Graham would like to try similar development programs in other cities. It worked with the Striders. He estimates there will be 300 kids registered for the one in Buffalo.
His track record speaks for itself.
A National Model
Graham, who was employed at Cummins Engine from 1987-1995, was able to shift gears toward the youth after his manager, John Burnett, suggested he return to work in the community.
So with the company's blessing, Graham started a 4-H work-force prep initiative, which gives qualified Jamestown High School students the opportunity to serve apprentices at nine area companies. After spending their junior and senior years in the workplace, the students then take corresponding courses at Jamestown Community College.
"Cummins sent me to JCC on loan for minority recruitment in 1993, but in the process of going through that, I knew right from the beginning what we needed to do to make the same opportunities available to all kids."
Graham and Ken Balling of the Cornell Cooperative fine-tuned the program to the point that it has become a national model.
Noted Lorenc, "He really made it work. It's really started to grow and it will be a significant program for years to come... He was an incredibly effective catalyst in pulling people together."
In typical fashion, Graham downplays his role.
"A real leader is someone who can have a vision, get people to share the vision and have enough common sense to get out of the way,' he said.
"What I've been given an opportunity to do is find those pockets of interest where people are willing to put forth their own time and energy to do these things. My work is to maximize energy and work with people from all walks of life that want to focus on the community and make it a better place to live."
"Simply put, Graham's life is really a story about kids," Shepherd said. "That's the beauty of the man."
More Than A Coach
Graham insists he's just a "frustrated track coach" who was introduced to the sport at the age of nine by Herb Cunningham. It was people like Cunningham and Bobo Hunter who kids like Graham looked up to back then.
"What I want to see is to get back to that," Graham said. "It takes a village to raise a child... and we don't have that village. We need to get back to that village. That's what I hope to do. That's why we're using 4-H and athletics and exciting good work to bring some of these things to be. There are people out there that want to do that."
Noted Diethrick, who has known Graham since his pre-teen years, "He has that ability to motivate and bring people along and he's also not selfish with his success. A lot of people are able to move out of the shadows because of Ron's work. He's a consummate builder and motivator. I don't think you'll ever find him standing alone."
To this day, Graham regularly receives cards and letters from kids whose lives he touched; writes grants seeking state aid for community programs; counsels troubled youth; and serves as a consultant for the National 4-H Council.
"I've been blessed," Graham said. "This is my own way of giving it back, of serving. There's something called servant leadership and I aspire to that."
His family - which includes his wife Helen and children Chuck (26), Tamu (25), Rashaan (23), Faith (22) and LeeAnne (20) - is supportive of that.
"It's been the best working experiment of love in motion," Graham said. "We've always tried to give to each other. They knew community work was important to me and we've always supported each other. They've permitted me to do this and they know it's fulfilling for me and hundreds of kids. It's a labor of love."
'It Matters To That One'
Last year Graham was in Washington, D.C. showing the apprenticeship model at a youth symposium.
During the program, he listened as a speaker talked about the importance of saving America's youth. The story the man told has stuck with Graham, reminding him of a time 41 years ago when a man named Bello came to his aid. The story went like this;
"Why are you doing it?" the newcomer asked. "You can't save them all."
The man picked up another starfish, tossed it into the ocean and turned to his companion and said, 'Well, it matters to that one.'"
Kids matter to Graham.
"I approach every kid I work with like one of my own children," Graham said.
Just like Bello did 41 years ago.