Order of Merit recipient and Olympic Team leader John Graham passes away

by Jack Carnefix, National Wrestling Hall of Fame

John Graham portrait, John Graham with his National Wrestling Hall of Fame Order of Merit trophy (Photo by National Wrestling Hall of Fame)

STILLWATER, Okla. – The National Wrestling Hall of Fame, USA Wrestling and the entire wrestling community were saddened to learn that longtime National Wrestling Hall of Fame supporter, board member, Olympic Team Leader and 2001 Order of Merit recipient John Graham passed away on Thursday.

Services will be held on Thursday, February 1, at 2 p.m. at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Poquoson, Virginia, followed by a Celebration of Life at the Poquoson Yacht Club.

"We are deeply saddened to hear about the passing of John Graham, a man whose passion for wrestling was unparalleled. On behalf of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Board of Governors and our staff, I extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends." said Lee Roy Smith, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. "John's journey in wrestling began not on the mat, but from the sidelines, as he wholeheartedly embraced the sport when his sons began wrestling. His support and enthusiasm for wrestling didn't wane even after their competitive days were over.

“John's tireless volunteer efforts were felt across the United States, as he dedicated himself to advancing the sport in every way possible. More than just financial contributions, John invested his time, talent, creativity, and wisdom into wrestling and particularly into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame,” he added. “As a valued member of our Board of Governors, John was a fervent advocate for the Hall of Fame's sustainability. He played a pivotal role in encouraging the leadership to focus on building an endowment fund, ensuring that the legacy of the Hall of Fame will continue in perpetuity. His contributions were immense and his absence will be deeply felt."

Graham was also a leader within USA Wrestling, making a personal commitment to help U.S. athletes to succeed at the international level. He served as the Team Leader for the 1988 and 1996 Olympic Teams as well as the Team Leader for four USA Freestyle World Teams and the Pan American Team. He invested a considerable amount of time and effort into supporting our nation’s best athletes in their quest to become Olympic and World champions.

“John Graham was one of our sport’s great givers. He was never looking for credit for his incredible support of USA Wrestling and countless wrestlers,” said USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender. “John’s passion to make the sport better was infectious and his fingerprints are all over the current successes that the sport enjoys. We are heartbroken by his passing, but incredibly grateful for all that he has meant to so many. John Graham has left a lasting impression on wrestling in America and around the globe.”

In 19 years as an aeronautical engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, John Graham poured meticulous planning into heat transfer studies and tests supporting the United States Polaris and Titan Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

His pursuit of perfection continued as Flight Operations Manager for Project Viking, the country's early effort to land a vehicle on the planet Mars. Recovery of the Project Mercury Astronauts and space craft splashdown -- a matter of life or death -- hinged upon precision planning.

Turning to the business world, Graham owned and operated seafood processing plants in Hampton, Virginia. Again, details were essential for success.

When his sons began to wrestle, Graham's talent for planning and details, together with his new interest in the sport of wrestling, produced smoothly run, spectator-friendly tournaments.

In 1981, Graham started the storied Virginia Duals and set a precedent in American tournaments. The Virginia Duals set the standard for how to conduct high-level national dual meet competitions. His ability to solicit support from the community in the Virginia Beach area and conduct a first-class event presentation attracted the nation’s best teams to compete there. The Virginia Duals continues today as an elite showcase of collegiate and high school wrestling.

He was the "Founding Father," and three times the director for college wrestling's national team championships, the Cliff Keen National Duals.

In his desire to develop the Peninsula Wrestling Association, to see more youth wrestling, to better collegiate competition and to provide strong international leadership, Graham did what an innovator does best, he paid attention to ideas and details. As a result, John Graham raised the bar for the sport of wrestling at all levels.