There’s a saying Dave Graham likes.
“You should blossom where you’re planted.”
Certainly the longtime Evergreen resident has blossomed in the stubborn Colorado soil that’s nurtured his family for generations.
“My grandfather came from Ireland on a merchant marine ship, and my grandmother came to Colorado in a covered wagon.”
The third of four children, Graham was raised in Denver. The son of a general contractor, he knew his way around a construction site almost as soon as he could walk. But if the family business put bread on the table, the restless boy aspired to more fertile fields.
“I was young and aggressive,” shrugs Graham, with an almost apologetic grin. That said, it can be remarkably difficult to get Graham to engage in even the mildest sort of self-promotion.
“I’m my least favorite subject,” he says, deadpan and dead serious.
Graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1970, Graham hitched his own wagon to commercial giant American Drug Stores and started covering ground fast. By his own wry admission, he was the company’s “golden-haired boy;” and at the tender age of 22 he was transplanted into a choice managerial post in Southern California. It was a signal honor, a rare opportunity, and, as Graham quickly discovered, a big step in the wrong direction.
“I didn’t like L.A.,” he explains, simply. “So I came back.”
But he didn’t come back just to re-bury himself in the same sterile, authoritarian, and often arbitrary corporate environment. He would succeed by virtue of his own talents and energy, or not at all.
“I had two job requirements,” Graham explains. “Remuneration had to directly correlate to my own effort, and I would never let anyone transfer me again. I started looking into the real estate business.”
Back then, Van Schaack was the big boy on Colorado’s real estate block, and Graham began knocking on doors. To his frustration, not one of Van Schaack’s Denver-area managers could be bothered to make time for an un-credentialed ingénue, so Graham, still just 22 and bold as brass, went over their heads.
“I called the president and interviewed with him.”
He got the job. As luck would have it, in 1974 the only opening for a Van Schaack agent anywhere along the Front Range was at the Evergreen office, and it was in Evergreen that Graham put down his roots.
He threw himself into his second career with the same vigor he’d applied to his first, rising quickly from raw trainee to top agent. By the time he was 34, Graham was a senior vice president and Van Schaack’s residential sales manager. But even before that he’d already begun tilling new fields of endeavor. In 1981, and at the age of 28, he summoned up what resources he could muster and purchased 340 acres of green forest and grassy meadow high up Little Cub Creek, carefully tended that favored parcel as it blossomed into Cub Creek Ranch, a green and grassy neighborhood filled with sturdy homes and growing families. Graham was also among the developers behind the 1,000-acre Ridge at Hiwan, helping slow and sleepy Bergen Park blossom into one of Evergreen’s most lovely and lively quarters.
But even as he grew and thrived under Evergreen’s generous sunlight, Graham became acutely aware that many of his neighbors in the mountain garden were withering in the shade of hard circumstance. And he saw that, without careful tending, many others would never have the chance to bloom.
Graham was still just a sprout when his transformation from driven businessman to devoted gardener began. He was living on Cedar Circle, in the first house he ever built for himself, when a perfect little family living just a few doors down – friendly couple in their 30s, with a handful of exuberant young children – was scourged with cancer.
“I was in my 20s, and it just seemed incomprehensible,” Graham says, “I was completely unaware of the problems, the complications, the impact that something like cancer can have on people, on a family. I’d just never thought about it before.”
“It was the first time I became aware of Mount Evans Home Health and Hospice. They came in to help that family, and they made such a huge difference in their lives. I started to see what kind of community Evergreen was, and I knew that Mount Evans was a cause I could support.”
And Graham has supported it, tirelessly and in ways large and small, for nearly 40 years. Perhaps most notably, for every home sold in Cub Creek Ranch, Mount Evans receives one percent of the purchase price, right off the top. Even so, and much to his credit, Graham deems his contributions to Mount Evans small compared to the essential work performed by its rank and file.
“I couldn’t do what they do. It’s incredibly difficult work. But even if I can’t be in the trenches, I can still support those who are.”
Identifying needs and doing his level best to supply them is how Graham got involved with his second passion. He was sitting on the local board of Realtors in the mid-1970s when Evergreen High School teacher Gene Younger presented a pitch for their support of a high school building-trades program
“The school district was focused on kids going to college. But there were – and still are – a lot of kids who, for many different reasons, will never go to college, and often not even graduate from high school. The district wasn’t interested in them, and the truth is that most of those kids were on the way down.”
Along with Younger and a handful of like-minded neighbors, Graham helped found the Evergreen Building Trades program. The roughly 20 kids enrolled in the Evergreen Building Trades program at any given time built houses, a concept basic in principle and marvelously comprehensive in practice. Students in drafting classes designed the homes, kids in metal shop and wood shop crafted their various parts, home economics students devised interior schemes, and such kids as preferred to take their learning outside the classroom spent their school days at the home-site swinging a hammer, pushing a saw, and getting professional tutorials on the finer points of plumbing and wiring.
“Gene even found a way for them to get math credits. A lot of math goes into building a house.”
With the sale of the first student-built house in Wilmot Woods, the program became financially self-sustaining. Before Jeffco finally cashiered community-based vocational training entirely about 10 years ago, Evergreen kids had built nearly 30 solid and attractive homes, and built for themselves a level of self-confidence that would carry them forward into happy and productive futures.
“We would always have Home-Ec throw an open house when a project was finished,” Graham recalls. “To see one of those kids walking up the steps with 20 people in tow – parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles – showing off the beautiful house they made, you could see how significant it was to them. For a lot of them, it was the first thing they’d ever done that they could feel proud of. That program turned a lot of kids around. It changed their lives.”
Graham’s twin passions found common purpose recently when Evergreen Building Trades – now re-titled Evergreen Benefactors – lent its heart and help to Camp Comfort, the Mount Evans bereavement program that’s been helping to heal children’s blighted spirits every summer since 1995. Earlier this year, Graham and his fellow benefactors challenged their neighbors to help them establish a fund that could eventually render Camp Comfort – like the side-lined building trades program – financially self-sustaining. The benefactors pledged to match all contributions up to $25,000. Six months later, Evergreen Benefactors was on the hook for the considerably larger sum of $30,000, and Graham couldn’t be happier.
“Our goal is to change kids’ lives, and Camp Comfort does that. There’s an incredible need for what they do there.” Today, Graham is president of Mount Evans board of directors, and an unrelenting champion for the return of community-based vocational education. He lives in the second house he ever built for himself, set amid the forests and meadows of Cub Creek Ranch. He keeps horses there, and a small herd of cows.
“I guess I’m sort of a gentleman rancher,” he smiles.
He’s also a gardener of no mean ability. Just as surely as Graham’s professional endeavors have blossomed, so has his community been encouraged to flower.
“It’s important to know that you weren’t planted here by accident, and that you didn’t become successful by accident. If you’re successful, you have the opportunity to do a lot of other things.”