If you were lucky enough to know Lawrence Otis Graham, he would greet you with his mile-wide smile and twinkling eyes, so happy to see you. Whether he was in a hurry or not, he took the time to chat and ask how you were doing and catch up. He always had time for his friends and neighbors.
Lawrence Otis Graham, Chappaqua resident, respected attorney, author, media commentator, board member and lifelong advocate for diversity passed away on February 19, 2021. He was 59 years old and is survived by his wife, Pamela Thomas-Graham, two sons, Gordon and Harrison, a daughter Lindsey and his brother, Dr. Richard Graham. He graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. Graham was an attorney at the White Plains law firm Cuddy & Feder. Graham was one of the most widely read Black writers of the 1990s and is well-known for his 1992 New York magazine cover story, “Invisible Man,” about his experience working in a restaurant at the Greenwich Country Club. He recounted the racism, sexism and anti-Semitism he encountered as a bus boy. The bestselling author of 14 non-fiction books about politics, education, race and class in America, Graham’s work includes the books, The Senator and The Socialite: The Story of America’s First Black Political Dynasty and Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, his New York Times and national bestseller that is currently under development by Fox Entertainment as a television series based on this book.
A dear friend …
Graham showed promise from his childhood. Stacey Blaustein Divack has known Graham since the 7th grade in the White Plains Schools, and their friendship lasted through the years, especially when they found themselves both living in Chappaqua. She has many memories of her dear friend. “Larry was a super high achiever. He was the Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Orange,’ our high school paper. He was principled, not political and determined to publish the truth. He was tireless, did his homework and left no stone unturned.” She also recalls from her high school days, “As a leader, he took ownership of issues and coming up with solutions. He followed his dreams and despite some tough situations and racial hinderances, he overcame. He would never attain his goals by the wrong means. It was hard work and honesty.” He was a great friend. “If you called him, he was there, or he beat you to being there.” Family was so important to Graham. “He came from parents who cared so much, and he was very hands-on with his own children.” And she adds, “Larry had an inner spark that radiated and permeated everything he did. He wanted to make a mark in the world. He had his own unique style: brilliance, warmth, caring, humbleness. He was such a warm soul.”
Thanks to Vanessa Williams and her mother Helen, the Grahams settled in Chappaqua in 1998.
Helen Williams recalls, “Vanessa found the house and encouraged Larry to take a look telling him here’s where you should come, the schools are great and it’s a great piece of property–and he bought it.” Mrs. Williams has been a friend of the family for 30 years having met Graham’s mother Betty as fellow members of LINKS. “Each year Larry would bring me a poinsettia for Christmas. And he did again this year. It was always something I looked forward to. We had a special connection and talked a lot. He listened well to suggestions and advice almost as if I was a mother mentor for him.” What will she miss most? “His eager smile and his laugh, everything about the essence of him. He had so much more to offer. He was always working on something and always looking forward. I will miss his presence on this earth, how much he gave and how much more he had to give.”
Graham was the Chair of the Westchester County Police Board. County Executive George Latimer wrote, “I met him when he and his wife Pam–a talented and successful executive in her own right–lived in White Plains and I was going door-to-door running for re-election as a County Legislator. I walked away from that front door meeting knowing I had just met an impressive man… and he was that and more over the 25 plus years of our friendship.”
A grateful person …
Political differences never defined his personal relationships according to Tara Rosenblum, News 12 Reporter/Anchor. Graham appeared on the weekly Newsmakers program as a political analyst and was often on air election nights. “Lawrence was able to have a political disagreement and separate it from your friendship. He was always there on a moment’s notice. You could ask him about any topic and he could expand on it like an accordion, filling in as much time that was needed to a commercial break. He had incredible political insights and intuition but, what I found most impressive about him with all his achievements, he never forgot the little things people did for him along the way. He was just such a deeply grateful person.”
A good neighbor …
Former New Castle Supervisor Barbara Gerrard has some reflections on Graham. “Larry was the quintessential Renaissance man, but more than that to people in Chappaqua, he was a neighbor, a dad, a concerned friend, the kind of good person we all strive to be. I first met Larry when he was running for Congress. I had just been elected to the New Castle Town Board, and he reached out to offer his assistance in any way he could. It was always his way to offer help, advice, or just an attentive ear, to anyone who needed it. He had that overarching ability to connect with everyone he met, an ability enhanced by his genuine concern with neighbors and friends. It is difficult to accept that his presence will no longer grace our community.”
Graham could be seen in local shops all over town. Gerrard continues, “He took advantage of everything Chappaqua had to offer. When his children were young, you’d often find him bringing them to Town, especially to the Chappaqua Library, his favorite destination.” Not only a visitor to the library, but Graham also did an author talk about his book, Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World.
When former Town Supervisor and School Board member Janet Wells was forming the Chappaqua School Foundation, Graham helped to bring awareness to the organization. He hosted free events, among them a pre-college program about his Ten Point Plan for College Acceptance, the book he wrote while a student at Princeton. Wells worked with him on his 1999 Congressional campaign doing fundraising and was often with Graham on the trail. “Larry had energy and enthusiasm, and he had a lot to offer. It’s really sad he never became a Congressman; he would have contributed so much.” Graham returned the favor to Wells. “He was kind and helped me with my campaign. I always knew I could call him. He would recognize a problem and something he could do to help even before I would even ask. He was such a sensitive person. One of the things I loved about him was how he seized all the opportunities to enjoy life.”
Nichelle Maynard-Elliott, co-chair of the New Castle Council on Race and Equity, has a long history with Graham. “I first met Larry as a first-year summer associate at Weil Gotshal. He was a warm and friendly face and personality. He generously offered his support and guidance as an older, full time associate. Our paths crossed again much later in life as our children attended the Armonk Montessori together, and we discovered we were neighbors in Chappaqua. His warm smile and infectious enthusiasm were consistent for the 30 years I knew him.”
President Bill Clinton shares his thoughts. “Hillary and I liked and admired Larry very much, and we enjoyed the chance to get to know him over the last 20 years. We’re grateful that, in addition to shining a light on the role of race and class throughout our history and in our present day, he used his many gifts to make Chappaqua and Westchester better, stronger, and more inclusive. His passing is a big loss for the community, and our thoughts are with his family and all the people whose lives he touched.”
A beautiful soul …
At his funeral service, on February 27th at the Grace Episcopal Church in White Plains, his wife Pamela spoke about what Graham would want all of us to remember. There were four things: Never give up, have no ego, be a light in the world, and savor the moment. And she added, “be kind.” Lawrence Otis Graham was all that. He leaves us with quite a legacy in his 59 years on this Earth, and a big void now. Maya Angelou said, “A great soul serves everyone all the time. A great soul never dies. It brings us together again and again.” Lawrence Otis Graham, the great and beautiful soul that he was, has done just that.
Statement from the New Castle Council on Race & Equity:
While Lawrence Otis Graham was not an official member of the CRE, he certainly stands out as a prominent BIPOC member of the Town of New Castle. He wrote compellingly about growing up upper-middle-class and Black, and the pressures of navigating these two sometimes conflicting identities. Our neighbor’s unique voice on the challenges of living in a white world while holding on to Black culture will be missed.