Obituary: Donald Graham / Korean War vet served community during the steel industry crash

Aug. 4, 1932-Nov. 17, 2013

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Donald Graham, a tough Navy veteran of the Korean War who started a food bank in Brookline after the steel industry here collapsed, died Sunday at a hospice in Peters.

He was 81 and had spent much of his life in Brookline, where he and his wife, Lois, raised their nine children, two of whom followed him into the Navy.

Mr. Graham saw combat in Korea aboard the USS Miller, a World War II-era destroyer, and circumnavigated the globe on the ship in 1952. He was proud to be part of the relatively small fraternity of sailors who could claim that honor.

"I got to see a lot of the world that most people didn't see," he said in an oral history project for one of his grandsons. "It was interesting to see the different cultures. I really appreciate the fact that I got to see so many foreign lands."

Back home, he married, went to work in a variety of jobs, raised his family and helped his community by starting the Brookline Christian Food Pantry in 1983.

The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul had once given him $100 for food when he was out of work. "I wasn't that desperate, but they told me, come on, take it, it's not begging," he explained in 1985.

He never forgot the gesture, and when hard times hit the region in 1982, he decided to duplicate the generosity by enlisting local churches to start the food bank at Brookline United Methodist Church. It served about 90 families in Brookline, Overbrook and Dormont.

"He just wanted to help other people," said his daughter, Sharon Wahl, 49, of Cecil. "Even though he had nine kids of his own, he wanted to give something back."

Powerfully built and a bit stern of manner, Mr. Graham could be an intimidating presence, but it was mostly a false impression.

"All of our boyfriends were terrified of him," Ms. Wahl said. "But once you got to know him, he always had a joke or a story. He was a good husband and a good father."

Mr. Graham was born in Bon Air and graduated high school in 1950. When the war in Korea began, he enlisted in the Navy at 19.

"Everyone was in the service of one kind or another," he said, "so I thought 'What the heck.' "

Assigned to a destroyer squadron headed for Korea with the battleship Missouri, he served as an electrician's striker and projectionist for movies aboard the Miller. The ship saw battle off the Korean coast, where Mr. Graham recalled being startled to hear 8-inch shells exploding outside the hull. He also visited 20 ports on a goodwill tour around the world and once thrilled his mother by calling her from the Rock of Gibraltar.

As the ship was returning to port in Rhode Island, Mr. Graham recalled, one of his shipmates wrote a letter to Miller Brewing. The beer company, capitalizing on the ship's name, rented a hall for the crew. The event was written up in New England newspapers.

"They had a case of beer for every guy on the ship," said Mr. Graham, who normally didn't drink beer but had a few anyway. "I'll never forget that."

Mr. Graham had written a letter to Lois, his fiancee, every day on board ship. When he got home, they resumed their relationship and he took a job that paid about $30 a week. Lois said that when he earned $60 a week, they could get married. He soon landed a job at a manufacturing plant that paid just over $60, and the two married in 1953.

They moved to Brookline, where Mr. Graham took advantage of a veterans program to get a 4 percent interest rate on a mortgage and buy a house.

Over the years, Mr. Graham worked as a mechanic, a school bus driver, a carpet installer and a heating and air conditioning technician. He later took a job in maintenance for the Port Authority of Allegheny County and eventually moved to the art department. He had studied at the Art Institute in earlier years and always retained an interest in art; his job was to paint colorful ads on the city's buses and trolleys. Among his creations was the well-known Clark Bar Trolley.

When the steel industry imploded in 1982, Mr. Graham saw his neighbors in need. He had read about food banks in the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper and decided to start one through his church, St. Pius X, and seven other local churches.

His desire to help was rooted in faith. A devoted Catholic, he had been heavily influenced by the Cursillo religious movement ever since he attended his first retreat in 1976.

In 1985, Vectors Pittsburgh, a community service organization, honored him as its volunteer of the year for his work with the food pantry.

Around that time he took early retirement from the Port Authority to care for his wife, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

About six years ago, Mr. Graham was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disorder. He moved into an assisted living facility in Peters last year.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Graham is survived by a sister, Evelyn Trantor of Monroeville, and eight other children: Donald of New Jersey; Joyce of Peters; Mark, Kathleen and Scott of Bethel Park; Doris and Janice of Cecil; and Neil of Coraopolis.

Funeral services were held Wednesday at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Carnegie and at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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