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At 90, She's Still Quietly Leading the Pack

July 26, 1998|MARNELL JAMESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The track was dark, but the infield at Santa Anita Park was jumping July 11 as 130 relatives and friends came out to celebrate Lucile Graham's 90th birthday.

"Aw, she's just a filly," said John Barr, Graham's son-in-law, a racehorse owner who is involved with the track and who made it possible to hold the party there.

If this filly were a racehorse, her family might call her Endurance or Silent Steel--such is the quiet, steady way she has always supported and nurtured her extending family.

"She never told us how to raise our kids," said son Harold Graham, 64. "But she'd give us advice if we asked."

Her family's testimony to her decades of thoughtfulness showed in their attendance. Ninety-some relatives came from Iowa, Arizona, Colorado, New York and Michigan, as well as from all over California, to celebrate.

"We had a big party for her 80th birthday at her mobile home park," said daughter Betty Barr, 70. "We thought that might be her last big party. I told her when she turns 100 she'd better plan her own party because then I'll be too old."

Born in Orange in 1908, before antibiotics, ballpoint pens, freezers or Frisbees, Graham recalls a time when time-sharing meant togetherness, fast food was for Lent, and spacecrafts had not even appeared in comic strips. Her chores as a child growing up in Madison County, Iowa (now famous for some book about bridges), included filling the kerosene lamp, cleaning the cream separator, ironing clothes with a sadiron heated on the stove, and pumping water and carrying it into the house.

Her life, which she'll tell you is "not very exciting," is extraordinary for its very ordinariness, for its increasingly rare example of how a traditional life is supposed to go. She married her childhood sweetheart, Russell Graham, when they were just 19. (She first encountered Russell when she was riding a pony bareback over a bridge. He threw a rock from under the bridge, which startled the horse and sent Lucile tumbling.) He died in 1974. Today their legacy includes three children, nine grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

"My biggest accomplishment is raising a family that I'm proud of," she said. "No one's gone to jail, and no one's been on drugs." She does wish, however, that her descendants better appreciated the value of a dollar.

She has other accomplishments she's more modest about. She's serving her fourth term on the board of directors for her mobile home park in San Marcos. For family celebrations, she makes lavishly decorated cakes, an art she's practiced for years. She's a no-nonsense shuffleboard player who plays in a league for seniors--men and women 55-plus--and has more than two dozen trophies. "Several," she reluctantly conceded, are first places.

Though born before radio and television, Graham handily programs her own VCR and uses her home computer to create the mobile home park newsletter as well as personalized birthday and Christmas cards, although "I'm not surfing the Net yet," she said. Even the DMV acknowledges her acuity. She passed her recent driver's test and got her license renewed until 2003.

"I don't think they looked at my birthday," she whispered.

Wearing a turquoise and white pant outfit and a gold necklace that said No. 1 Grandma, Graham roamed among the many round tables, visiting and reminiscing. The lively affair offered a catered barbecue buffet and activities for all ages: Kids took to the pony rides, moon bounce and face painting, while those a bit older danced to tunes from a country-western band, placed bets for off-site horse races and helped youngsters with a scavenger hunt. Others were content to just shoot the breeze.

Because of her chronologically gifted status, Graham received cards and letters from her district's state and national representatives, and special regards from Bill and Hillary. But most meaningful was the tribute granddaughter Sharon Lucas, of Cupertino, wrote:

"My grandmother has never been one to seek the limelight. I like the fact that she doesn't feel constant chitchat is necessary. There's a quiet serenity about her. She is content to let others monopolize the conversation."

Which was certainly going on that day at the racetrack. After mingling awhile, Graham sat back and watched the conversation and activity whirl.

"See what you started," someone said to her.

"I'm a bit overwhelmed," she said.

*

Do you have a joyful event coming up? We will report on selected special moments in the lives of Southern Californians. Write Celebrations, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, fax to (213) 237-4888, or e-mail to lifeandstyle@latimes.com. Include your name and telephone number.

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