Don Graham’s lovefest: Employees pay tribute at emotional farewell party

October 22, 2013

Hundreds of friends, family and colleagues celebrate and give tribute to Don Graham and his family . (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

We generally avoid writing about our bosses for fear of looking like fawning toadies, which is why we were hesitant to cover the lovefest for Don Graham Monday night.

Then it hit us: He’s not our boss anymore! (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos formally took the reins earlier this month.)

The whole party was one long, heartfelt tribute to the Graham family, who owned the Washington Post for 80 years. About 650 current and former Post employees — including newsroom legends Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward — gathered on the building’s first floor, which used to house the printing press back in the day.

But the night was really all about Don. Famed for his handwritten “atta boy” notes to reporters and the kitschy Christmas sweater he wore every December, he’s been a beloved figure in the newsroom for decades. “He set a template for every boss I’ve ever had since then,” said NPR’s Michele Norris, who worked on the paper’s Metro desk.

Everyone had a Don story, many with the same themes: he always remembered people’s names; he was selfless; he could change people’s lives.

Like Len Cooper, who worked as a press room operator in October 1982 until he started writing for the paper after Graham introduced him to newsroom editors. Now with the Defense Department in Italy, Cooper made the transatlantic trip to celebrate his former boss. “I said, a mile, a thousand miles, it’s all the same to me — I’ll be there,” he told us.

WASHINGTON DC - OCTOBER 21 Don Graham receives a warm embrace from former Washington Post employee Pam Kendrick. Hundreds of friends, family and colleagues celebrate and give tribute to Don Graham and his family at the Washington Post in Washington, D.C.on October 21, 2013. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Don Graham and former Post employee Pam Kendrick.

So there were toasts, toasts and more toasts. Usually, the publisher is “an absolute schmuck,” as Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Gene Weingarten delicately put it. At the Post, “the guy who signed the paychecks was the most righteous and best person in the whole place.”

But it was veteran reporter Martin Weil who put it best. “The Washington Post, as we know, has been sold,” he told his colleagues. “But there is another Washington Post and that Washington Post cannot be sold, because it is our own personal property. It resides in the hearts and minds of all of us. . .Don Graham is the embodiment of the Washington Post that lives on in our memories.”

Graham sat in the front row with his wife, journalist Amanda Bennett, son, daughter and son-in-law, laughing along with each joke and finally standing to address his fans. He gave a shout-out to Bradlee, threw in a self-deprecating dig (“It still irritates me I wasn’t the best reporter hired in 1971,” he deadpanned, referring to Woodward), and pledged to speak to every single person at the party.

“Time and technology have changed, and every one of my 1971 heroes has left the newsroom – except, of course, for Martin Weil,” he said. “Now it’s time for me to go, too. But tomorrow morning, I’ll pick up the Post with the same pleasure and expectation I felt in 1971.”

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