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105-year-old always looks to tomorrow
Cook Cindy Kissler celebrates Bob Graham's 105th birthday with him during a party at the Absarokee Senior Center on Thursday. Graham "graduated" with Charlie Russell and used to help Jeannette Rankin start her car in the winter.

ABSAROKEE — Not everyone can say they graduated with artist Charlie Russell. Bob Graham of Absarokee could make that claim, except for the fact that he missed the ceremony because he was off in the woods working for the Forest Service.

Graham, who turns 105 on Sunday, graduated from the University of Montana in 1925. The graduation program — he still has it — shows that Charlie Russell earned an honorary doctorate that same year.

Still driving

There are a handful of Montanans senior to Graham, but it's a good bet that the rest of them aren't driving. Not only did Graham pass his vision test last year, said stepdaughter Janel Brunckhorst, but they renewed his license to his 108th birthday. Graham's driving is more or less restricted to the two-mile trip from his home to the senior center in Absarokee. In fact, he drove to his own birthday party held there on Thursday.

Two days shy of 105, Graham recalls dates as if they were written on the back of his hand. He's wiry — he weighs the same he did in high school — and he still lives alone. The only medicine he takes is an occasional aspirin. He wears glasses and wouldn't leave home without his hearing aids, but all of his "parts," except his teeth, are original.

Firm shake

What's most remarkable about Graham, however, is his handshake — so firm that you'd swear he was half his age.

Graham has lived more than a century in Montana, but he was born in Louisiana on June 4, 1901.

At age 3, he came to Montana by train, along with his grandmother, several aunts and his brother. He remembers waving goodbye from the window, but he's not sure why his parents sent him west. He only saw them once more. That was in 1928, when after teaching for two years, he squirreled away $275 to buy a 1925 Chevrolet coupe. He and his brother drove the car back to Louisiana for one last visit.

But that's getting ahead of the story. Graham grew up west of Missoula in a one-telephone town called Quartz (now Tarkio). He remembers seeing his first car drive over the hill, and he remembers perching on the sideboard for his first car ride.

He can also recall when the railroad line was built through the valley. The Japanese and Chinese workers shoveled by hand, he said.

From a one-room school in Quartz, Graham went on to the University of Montana. He earned $30 every quarter for being in the ROTC program, enough to pay his tuition.

In Missoula, Graham lived just across the alley from another famous Montanan, former Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin. On winter mornings, he said, he would crank her car to get it started.

Graham graduated with a degree in business and went on to teach in places like Baker, Choteau, Ismay and Jordan. Then he moved into school administration, serving as superintendent of the Absarokee district and then county superintendent until retiring in 1963.

But that was only his first career. After 45 years in education, he went into real estate and accounting.

"He figured his own income taxes this year," Brunckhorst said.

And, yes, he owed money, Graham acknowledged with a smile.

His insurance company, however, was more lenient than Uncle Sam. They recently renewed his insurance without charging him the premium.

Graham was 76 when he took up golf. He helped organize Montana's Senior Golf Tournament well into his 90s. He was 103 when he packed up his clubs and sold his membership at the Stillwater Golf Course.

Graham likes to have fun, but service is his passion.

"The good Lord set me on this earth for a purpose," he said. "And I'm still working on it."

Fifty-eight years ago, he joined the Lions Club in Choteau. Still an active member in the Absarokee Lions, a group he helped found in 1954, Graham participated in their White Cane Day just a few weeks ago.

"It's always been a pleasure to see the smiles on those faces when they get a pair of glasses," he said. "That's what I work for."

Graham exudes a sense of humor, but he's also dealt with sadness, including the loss of two wives.

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His first wife, Flora, died of cancer in 1964. His second wife, Ruth, passed away three years ago. In spite of Ruth's having multiple sclerosis and being confined to a wheelchair for 30 years, the couple celebrated life. They traveled extensively and, even past the age of 100, Graham was able to transfer her from her chair to the car and back.

"I became an expert wheelchair pusher," he said with a smile.

But Ruth's death came as a blow to Graham. He said he was about ready to give up, until Karen Erdie, with the Council on Aging in Roundup, suggested he correspond with several widows in the region. Taking on 'pen pals' brought new life to Graham, and his writing has even expanded to poetry.

Two years ago, Graham attended the Governor's Conference on Aging. There were five other centenarians there, all of them women.

"I was the only one walking," he said.

Graham, whose mother lived to be 99, has no secret for living long.

"Just eat well and sleep and play," he said.

He drinks an occasional glass of wine, and he even used to smoke in his youth. (He remembers "smokers" at UM, where cigarettes were set out in bowls, free for the taking.)

The daily crossword puzzle keeps him sharp, and the wonder that comes with each new day keeps him waiting for the next.

"Tomorrow, I'm always looking to tomorrow," he said. "I like to see what happens."

Contact Linda Halstead-Acharya at lhalstead-acharya@billingsgazette.com.

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