The photos with presidents and royals were countless, and the trips to world capitals were many, and she was embroiled in the gravest of national crises, but Katharine Graham's anchor was the town she called home, where she never ceased asking what she might do to better its lives through its schools, arts and neighborhoods.
Two years ago, a fax arrived in the office of I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University, the school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Northeast Washington. Mrs. Graham was offering $1 million for a student center. "We danced, we literally danced," Lynne Murray, assistant executive director for development, said yesterday.
A few years back, Mrs. Graham went for a van ride, inspecting day-care centers in neighborhoods both well-off and not. There was a gulf in quality between them. "I remember how concerned she was," said Barbara Ferguson Kamara, executive director of the District's Early Childhood Development office, who rode with Mrs. Graham that day. But today, like most days, toddlers in Southeast Washington will be able to enjoy two day-care facilities that Mrs. Graham helped fund.
Today, too, Howard University's radio station, WHUR-FM, will take to the air, as usual. The station was a gift from Mrs. Graham's company. It is a commercial radio outlet, not a nonprofit public one, enabling Howard to make money. "It was a contribution by her that will continue in perpetuity," said Cathy Hughes, the founder of Radio One, the nation's largest black-owned radio company, who was WHUR's first female general manager.
On the day after Mrs. Graham's death at 84, as preparations continued for her funeral Monday at Washington National Cathedral, these and other figures of Washington's civic universe relived her work with local education, recalled her faith in home rule and took stock of what she did for opera, theater and more.
"She was a person with a kind of a national-global view, but who never took her eye off her home town," said John R. Tydings, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which honored her four years ago as Leader of the Years, plural.
"She loved the city," said Mary Bellor, former president and current trustee of the Philip L. Graham Fund, although Mrs. Graham "never wanted public recognition."
The fund -- and Mrs. Graham personally -- helped the Freer Gallery with the cost of renovating its auditorium, Bellor said. The fund supported the Shakespeare Theatre and its program of free summer plays. And Mrs. Graham was a founding member of the D.C. Committee on Public Education, Bellor said: "She always had a deep and abiding interest in public education."
Paul Higdon knows that firsthand. He met Mrs. Graham this year when he was recognized with an Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award, funded by The Washington Post and named for Mrs. Graham's mother. Higdon, 52, a history teacher at Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City, said honoring teachers has a "profound impact" on their lives because so often they feel unappreciated. Getting the award is "something I will never forget."
That emphasis on education, former District mayor Walter E. Washington said, was part and parcel of Mrs. Graham's deep desire to have her home town become the equal of great capitals everywhere. So, too, was a decades-long belief that the District ought to be free of direct federal governance, Washington said.
"We have lost a giant," he said.
At Gallaudet, Mrs. Graham was the honorary chair of the Gallaudet Board of Associates, formed in 1991 to improve the school's ties to the business and charitable communities. Although she had been asked if she would be willing to give something to help underwrite a proposed $10 million student center, Murray said, the university was pleasantly surprised by Mrs. Graham's answer. But she hadn't been able to get through on the phone to give it -- so she faxed the news of her gift, the largest contribution from a living donor in the school's history up to that point.
Gallaudet, which is in the midst of a $30 million fundraising campaign, found that Mrs. Graham's willingness to help enabled the school to go to other potential donors and say, "Look, she believes in us," Murray said. But Mrs. Graham did not want word of her gift circulated beyond the campus and potential donors, she said.
In Southeast Washington, Mrs. Graham's contribution was at the other end of the educational arc, helping create two special day-care centers, one in 1993 and one in 1998, Kamara said.
On their van tour with several other people, Kamara said, one scene in particular drove home the differences among Washington neighborhoods: At one day-care center in Southeast, the director was washing a child's clothes, because it was evident the child had been wearing the same ones for days, suggesting he had no others. Noting the disparities citywide, Kamara recalled, Mrs. Graham said, "Oh my goodness, what can we do to improve this?"
She began raising money. But her efforts were not welcomed uncritically. In some neighborhoods, Kamara said, there was resistance because of a feeling that "The Post hadn't always been good" to the community. So, Kamara said, Mrs. Graham wrote a letter to community leaders, seeking to find out what the objections were, how things could be made better.
Did Mrs. Graham ever consider backing out in the face of hostility to her efforts?
"Never did," Kamara said. "Never did. She kept going back."
Hughes, the radio executive, recalled that long after Mrs. Graham gave the radio station to Howard University, the two of them were at a luncheon. "And she pulled me over and quietly said that when she did it, it really was a mistake." Mrs. Graham said that she had no idea in 1971, when the license changed hands, that FM radio stations would become such moneymakers, Hughes recalled.
"Well, I'm glad you did it," Hughes told her.
"I am, too," Mrs. Graham replied.
At the time of the gift, The Washington Post Co. said it was donating what was then WTOP-FM to stimulate the community's cultural life and to train people for careers in communications. Hughes said it was also a time when the government was squeezing newspapers to divest themselves of broadcast outlets in their home towns. Mrs. Graham could have sold WTOP and made a profit, Hughes said, but chose to simply give it away. Today, what is now WHUR makes money for Howard, a kind of annual check that Katharine Graham writes every year, Hughes said.
Staff writer Manny Fernandez contributed to this report.