It's been nearly four years since I saw Bill Graham.
It was at a surprise 90th birthday party for the eclectic entrepreneur, conservationist, philanthropist, World War II bomber pilot and one-time prisoner of war at the latest of his endless projects, a new restaurant called "The Trout House at Rushing Waters" in the Kettle Moraine State Forest just outside Palmyra.
Bill — W.T. Graham to the formally inclined — passed away this week just short of his 94th birthday. His death brought a rush of memories to the folks who knew him well during a time when he built successful businesses from scratch, experimented with and produced environmentally friendly plants, employed hundreds and started unique restaurants like the trout house, where he raised the fish in outdoor spring-fed ponds and served them fresh to the diners. His property there is the largest rainbow trout farm in Wisconsin.
After flying B17s in the war, where he twice was shot down, once in the English Channel where he and his crew were rescued by a British ship, and then over Germany where he was captured and held for 14 months, the native Georgian came home and decided to study at the UW here. After graduation, he started a company that made typewriter cleaning brushes. The firm quickly expanded into a full line of office supplies, called W.T. Rogers, located where Fish Hatchery Road meets the Beltline. He eventually sold the company to the corporation that eventually became Rubbermaid.
He started the World Dairy Center development on property he owned on the southeast side. The state's Department of Agriculture is located there along with dozens of private companies. Meanwhile he developed prairie grass seeds from remnant Wisconsin prairies on land he owned between Cooksville and Evansville, all the while opening a nursery near Femrite Drive and a restaurant in Cambridge, plus taking a leading role establishing programs for kids in south Madison.
In short, he was one of a kind.
A dyed-in-the-wool Republican, he nevertheless got along with everyone, just because he believed that deep down, all people are good regardless of their beliefs.
A new generation of Madisonians may not know of Bill Graham, but they should know that because of him, this is a much better place.
A service in his memory will be held this afternoon at 2 in the Gunderson Funeral Home in Oregon. True to his concern for kids, donations in his name should be made to the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel
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