Patricia Graham embodies the spirit of a 1920s flapper in that she allows nothing to stand in the way of accomplishing her goal, whether it’s conventional thinking or a busted hip, for the 86-year-old former Riverbank High school teacher has always chased after what she wanted — a character trait she encouraged and fostered in her students.
And this year she’s been chosen as the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce’s Lifetime Achiever, who will be honored at the annual banquet Friday, Jan. 21 at the community center.
The Early Years
Graham was born in northern Wisconsin in 1924 and right away she learned how to persevere from her mother who was widowed at a young age. Bright enough to earn several scholarships for college, she graduated early from high school but found herself stymied and unable to attend college right away because she couldn’t work due to her age and therefore couldn’t afford room and board. However, she did manage to attend business college and when World War II broke out, she began working for the National Youth Administration (NYA).
“Before the war I couldn’t get a job because of my age but once the war started they were taking everyone so then I got a job,” Graham said.
In 1943, she and her mother moved to California and she worked with Lockheed Aircraft and the Department of the Navy until the end of the war, then found employment as a medical secretary at the Veterans Hospital in San Fernando. There she met William Graham, whom she married in 1948. She had two sons, James and Robert, before moving to Oakdale in 1956.
Graham saw a plot of land on School Avenue — at the time it’d been an almond orchard — and knew she’d found the spot she wanted to live. She actually drew up the plans for the house and a friend at Oakdale Irrigation District made those plans into blueprints and construction on the house began.
Graham joked, “If I ever have a problem with the way the house was built, I only have myself to blame.”
Graham got involved in the community right away, joining the PTA, the Newcomers Club, St Mary’s Catholic Church, and organizing a child-care co-op.
“I never limited my socialization to one group of people,” she said. “And I don’t hesitate to call someone up for help. If you’ve enjoyed doing things in the community don’t hesitate to encourage people to get involved.”
True to form, when Graham was 33, she scandalized the neighbors by enrolling in Modesto Junior College.
She chuckled, recalling the initial reactions. “That just wasn’t done back then. People were quite shocked that I would leave my children in the care of other people so I could go back to school. But I never regretted doing that for those ladies taught my children so many things I couldn’t.”
Never a big fan of traditional domestic duties, Graham was more at home learning, driving, or otherwise just doing.
Her True Calling
Her studies were temporarily interrupted by the births of her two daughters, Jean and Barbara. Then she completed her coursework at MJC to move on to Stanislaus State College. Graham became one of the first students at the newly founded Stanislaus State College, majoring in English and working toward a teaching credential. She also made time to serve on the student council and as assistant yearbook editor.
She graduated from Stanislaus State in 1966 and did a year of student teaching at Oakdale High School before being hired as one of the “pioneer” faculty at Riverbank High School in 1967. Named Chair of the English Department in 1968, she taught RHS until her retirement in 1981.
And once she retired, she embarked on her life-long love of traveling.
For eight years she traversed the globe — alone, with the exception of one trip taken to Scotland with her husband — going from one end of the country to the other and even hopping the pond to visit Europe.
For Graham, there’s nothing more fulfilling than tackling the open road.
“I feel more relaxed in the car,” Graham said. “I like to get in the car and go. My husband used to tell me that he thought I was going to drive us into the poor house because I liked to drive so much.”
Graham took her husband’s concern seriously and found the most gas-efficient vehicle on the market — which happened to be a Volkswagen.
And she’s been driving Volkswagens ever since.
Given that she’s been driving since she was 13 — a judge granted her a license so that her mother could buy a car and then the dealer had to actually teach Graham to drive before she could get the license — one might think she’d have tired of being behind the wheel, but that’s not the case for Graham.
In fact, only a broken hip and later a hip replacement has managed to stall this avid traveler.
“I love to travel and see the country but my travels never took me south of the border,” she said. “I don’t like to go someplace where I don’t know the language.”
Although she’s been recovering from her recent hip replacement, she’s anxious to get back on the road, though she realizes she might not go further than Southern California to see her children at this stage in her life.
Still, she said, “I’ve had excellent doctors in support and encouragement in doing all things, particularly travel.”
She also notes her pastor at St. Mary’s Church as particularly supportive throughout the years.
Evidence Of A Trailblazer
In addition to her professional activities, Graham joined the American Association of University Women and helped found the Friends of the Oakdale Library. She maintains her membership in both organizations and has held offices in both.
She became a volunteer for Community Sharing and a member of the Oak Valley Hospital Auxiliary.
Today, she remains an associate member of the Auxiliary. She was also a member of the first Parish Council at St Mary’s Church.
Graham also served on the Election Board for 13 years and was a member of the Oakdale Museum Advisory Commission.
Her experience as an English teacher showed her the importance of good basic English skills for all members of the community, so in 1984 she helped to start a weekly English as a Second Language program called English For All, which offers classes at St Mary’s Parish Center under the auspices of the Stanislaus Literacy Council. She did this for 20 years and is now is an advisor for the program.
Retirement and the ‘Golden Years’ gave Graham a new host of interesting opportunities as she ventured into activities geared toward senior citizens in 1986. She and Billie Benedix co-founded St. Mary’s Seniors and Friends. She edited the monthly SMSF newsletter for 20 years. Starting in 1996, she served as a representative and voice for seniors in the community as a member of City of Oakdale Senior Advisory Commission for 12 years. During her tenure on the Commission, the Gladys L. Lemmons Senior Community Center was planned and built. She worked on an ad hoc committee that raised funds to furnish the new center. Soon after, when the Oakdale Senior Community Foundation emerged out of that committee to provide financial support for the senior community and senior center, Graham became a charter member and served as Chair for two, one-year terms. As a member of the Oakdale Senior Forum Graham also works to provide information and resources for seniors in the community.
Even when recovering from a devastating injury and breaking her hip in 1995, Graham didn’t simply lounge around. Graham discovered the benefits of aquatic therapy and joined several others in a project that became the Oakdale Community Aquatic Therapy Foundation, which has developed plans and is currently raising money to provide the city with an indoor therapy pool.
Somewhat sidelined by another broken hip in late 2010, Graham continued to serve her community through her favorite communication mediums: the telephone. She recently commented, “Since I can’t get out and help in the community, my job now is to find out what the needs in Oakdale are, and then to find people to fill those needs.”
And in spite of all these accomplishments, Graham admits to being baffled when she was told she’d been awarded the Lifetime Achiever award.
“I thought maybe they’d made a mistake because I’ve never been in business,” Graham said. “I’ve been involved in a lot of things but I’ve never owned a business in Oakdale. I couldn’t quite figure it out.”
Well, thankfully, someone choose to overlook that small fact, for Graham has created a legacy, showing what one, very independent, woman can do — even if she’s not in business.