From the top of the world to the bottom of the sea, William Graves visited every continent and explored some of the world's most forbidding and alluring places as a writer and editor for National Geographic magazine. Mr. Graves, 77, who died of asphyxiation June 12 as a complication of a stroke in Lititz, Pa., was the editor of National Geographic from 1990 to 1994.
An energetic, blunt-spoken man who was often at his desk before dawn, he led a life of high achievement and high adventure during his 38 years at National Geographic. Before taking the magazine's top position, he spent 12 years as senior editor for expeditions -- known informally at the magazine as "adventures editor."
Mr. Graves dropped in on an explorer at the North Pole, traveled down the Chang River in China, swam with whales off Hawaii, experienced earthquakes in Japan and studied mankind's ancient ancestors in Africa with the Leakey family. On one assignment, he climbed to the top of the Washington Monument on a shaky scaffolding; on another, he descended to the bottom of an artesian well in Iran, suspended only by a thin rope.
A stylish writer, Mr. Graves was known for improving the literary quality of the lavishly photographed but sometimes sluggishly written magazine, which has a worldwide circulation of 9 million. As an editor, he brought many notable explorers and writers into the magazine, including Thor Heyerdahl, Jacques Cousteau, Robert D. Ballard, Paul Theroux and Geoffrey C. Ward. The Geographic won two National Magazine Awards under his leadership.
"He certainly brought a jolt of energy to the magazine and the way it operated," said Bob Poole, who was executive editor under Mr. Graves. "The magazine has always been known for its strong photography and good design. It had not always been known before Graves as a magazine that was particularly friendly to writers."
Mr. Graves, whose father was assistant editor of National Geographic for several years before his death in 1932, was practically born to the job.
"Both of us came in with the legacy of our fathers to uphold," said Gilbert M. Grosvenor, chairman of the board and the fifth generation of his family to run National Geographic. "I think that the memories of our fathers pushed us from Day One."
In 1937, Mr. Graves's mother, Elizabeth Evans Graves, married Francis Bowes Sayre, a diplomat who was U.S. high commissioner to the Philippines in the early days of World War II. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces began to shell U.S. bases in the Philippines.
On Christmas Eve 1941, three days before Mr. Graves's 15th birthday, he and his family were evacuated to the island of Corregidor, where they stayed at Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters. After two months of Japanese siege, much of which they spent in underground tunnels, Mr. Graves and his family escaped to Australia by submarine.
"From that moment on," Poole said, "his life was defined by adventure."
Four decades later, he retraced the steps of his narrow escape in a National Geographic article, "Corregidor Revisited," published in 1986.
Mr. Graves joined National Geographic in 1956 as a "legend writer," or writer of photo captions. He became a staff writer in 1959 and wrote 25 articles for the magazine, each of which required months of research and travel. He visited all seven continents and the North Pole, and went deep-sea diving in most of the world's oceans. He wrote National Geographic's book "Hawaii" and contributed to five other books published by the National Geographic Society.
As senior assistant editor for expeditions from 1978 to 1990, Mr. Graves edited hundreds of stories for the magazine. Working from interviews, explorers' notes and often his own journeys, he composed graceful, gripping tales of adventure at the far edges of the world. Readers continually cited these stories as among their favorites.
"He insisted on what he called 'the little people,' " Poole said. "He wanted to hear from bricklayers, farmers, fishermen and normal people. If a writer didn't have that, by God, he had to go back and get it."
In April 1990, Mr. Graves was named editor after the controversial firing of his predecessor, Wilbur Garrett, by Grosvenor, himself a former editor of the magazine.
Mr. Graves, who spoke fast and moved faster, sometimes arrived in the office at 4:30 a.m.
"Bill Graves was not a low-key person," Grosvenor said. "He was very dynamic, very inquisitive."
"He had strong likes and dislikes," Poole said. "He could be very tough if he thought you had let down the magazine."
As editor, he continued National Geographic's strong tradition of photography but also made it an outlet for stylish, if scrupulously fact-checked, writing.
"Under Bill's editorship," Grosvenor said, "the text caught up with the pictures."
In spite of his occasional outbursts, Mr. Graves was known for his warm personality and lack of pretense. He drove to work in a Plymouth Horizon, visited staff members in the hospital and liked to recount amusing stories.
"The Geographic had several great raconteurs," said Ed Linehan, the magazine's former manuscripts editor, "and he was one of the best."
Mr. Graves, who was a member of the National Geographic Society's board of trustees while editor, retired in December 1994. He was succeeded by the magazine's current editor, William L. Allen.
William Pierce Evans Graves was born in the District, attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria and graduated from the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. After his escape during World War II, he returned to the Far East as a member of a Navy amphibious unit late in the war, stationed in the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan.
He graduated from Harvard in 1950 with a degree in English and history and spent four years in the Foreign Service, stationed in U.S. consulates in Germany and Japan. He began his career in journalism by covering politics for the old Munroe News Service before joining the National Geographic.
Mr. Graves spoke German and Japanese, was a voracious reader and was skilled at woodworking, especially elaborate marquetry. He also made stained-glass windows and sometimes arrived at work on Mondays with his fingers bandaged from glass cuts.
In 1979, he unsuccessfully sued the parent company of Arm & Hammer after his stomach ruptured when he took baking soda and water to relieve indigestion. He underwent six operations before his health was restored.
After he retired, he lived in Lancaster, Pa., and Chilmark, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. He had a severe stroke while driving in 2001 and spent the past three years in a nursing home.
His marriages to Louisa Hill Graves and Louise Bowie Graves ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 25 years, Joyce Graves of Lancaster; a son from his second marriage, William P. Graves of Pittsburgh; a brother, Ralph A. Graves of New York and Chilmark; a stepbrother, the Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr., former dean of Washington National Cathedral; and three grandchildren.
In the words of Poole, who worked with him for 14 years: "Graves was racing to catch up to himself, and everyone else was racing to catch up with him."
In the ninth-floor conference room at National Geographic, clocks are set to the various time zones of the world. When he was editor, one clock was set to "Graves Time." It was 10 minutes fast.