A loss in our community: Remembering board member and equity advocate Lawrence Otis Graham

A+loss+in+our+community%3A+Remembering+board+member+and+equity+advocate+Lawrence+Otis+Graham

AJ Walker and Emma Colacino

After years of advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion within the community, Lawrence Otis Graham, who held a variety of positions on the school’s Board of Trustees since 2008, passed away on February 19 at the age of 59. Graham was a parent at HM from 2002 through 2015, and after several years as an active parent volunteer, was asked to join the board in July of 2008. 

Graham will leave behind a lasting legacy at the school, particularly in regards to the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly said. “I think Mr. Graham’s family would be honored to know that he taught us much about access and the need for a universal definition of justice,” he said. “His work ethic and willingness to be visible by being present and engaged will continue to raise the bar for many for decades to come.”  

Graham was born on Dec. 25, 1961 and grew up in Manhattan. His father, Richard Graham, was a real estate developer, and his mother, Betty Graham, was a social worker. In 1967, Graham and his family moved to White Plains where Graham attended White Plains High School. Upon graduating from high school, Graham attended Princeton University, where he wrote three guidebooks about getting into college. 

After graduating from Princeton University in 1983, Graham attended Harvard Law School where he met his wife, Pamela Thomas. Graduating from law school in 1988, Graham became an attorney at the Manhattan law firm Cuddy & Feder. In addition to working as a corporate and real estate attorney, he also authored fourteen non-fiction books about education, race, and politics. His last book, titled “The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty,” details the story of Blanche Bruce, the second Black U.S. senator and the first to be elected to a full term.

In 1992, after Graham was already a partner at a law firm, he omitted his degrees from his resume and took a job as a waiter at the Greenwich Country Club in Connecticut. Graham detailed this experience in a cover New York Magazine article titled “Invisible Man.” “Quite frankly, I got into this country club the only way that a Black man like me could,” he wrote. “As a $7-an-hour busboy.”  The article recounted the racism, sexism, and anti-semitism Graham encoutered while working at the club, and was one of his most influential pieces. 

Other works of Graham’s include “Members of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World,” a collection of essays and other pieces of immersive journalism including “Invisible Man,” which was published in 1995. One of Graham’s best- known books is “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” which was labeled as a New York Times Notable Book.

Thomas said that the through-line in all of Graham’s writing is trying to help people who are not Black understand what that actually feels like, she said. “He wanted people to understand that when they look at someone Black who had achieved so much, they shouldn’t assume it was easy.”

As a member of the Board, Graham’s writings were reflected in his diversity and equity work for the school. He was instrumental in the creation of the annual Fall Gathering, a schoolwide event to support diversity by allowing families to interact with one another casually as well as participate in discussions hosted by the school’s parent and student affinity groups. “Larry strongly believed that if prospective families were given the opportunity to meet the greater HM community, they would come to understand our unwavering commitment to DEI [Diversity, equity, and inclusion],” Director of Development Melissa Parento P’22 said. 

Graham also supported the school’s Student Assistance Fund (SAF), a fund created to provide students with equal access to opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom and eliminate disadvantages based on economic standing. Graham aided the fund through consistent annual donations, Parento said. “If there was ever a shortfall, Dr. Kelly could always call Larry to fill the gap or fund a student’s experience.”

Additionally, Graham supported the SAF through encouraging other parents and alumni to support the assistance fund, Kelly said. “He also encouraged the school to consider reimbursing a broader array of expenses, such as athletic gear, international travel and technology.”

In addition to being a lawyer and author, Graham was a political analyst for News 12, a regional cable news television channel in the New York metropolitan area. Additionally, he ran for a New York seat in the House of Representatives in 2000 but ultimately lost. Graham was also the chairman of the Westchester Country Police Board, and served on the boards of the Red Cross of Westchester, the Westchester Holocaust Commision, the Princeton Center for Leadership Training, and the Jack & Jill Foundation. 

Graham joined the Board of Trustees in 2008, and served as Chair of the Annual Fund, the school’s yearly campaign to raise money in support of the daily operating budget, since 2010. Under his leadership, the Annual Fund contributed to the success of the $100 million HM in Motion campaign, which included the construction of Lutnick Hall, Prettyman Hall, Friedman Hall, and the Loria Aquatic Center.

Graham was particularly fond of working with the Nursery Division and often was the Trustee speaker of the Nursery Division’s Back to School Night, Director of Annual Giving Kristen Pietraszek said. 

Former Board Chair Steven Friedman ’72 P’03 P’04 P’08 knew Graham would be an asset to the Board after meeting him at a lunch early in Friedman’s first term. “He seemed to me to be a team player who could work with other trustees and always represent the Board well,” he said.

Working with Graham was an “absolute joy,” Friedman said. “When presiding over [board] meetings, I just let Larry be Larry,” Friedman said. “He wanted and received transparency as did I, and everything he asked or said came from a good place.” 

Graham was always an important member of the committees he served on and even came to chair and lead different committees as well, Friedman said. “At board meetings he asked probative questions to anyone presenting to the Board in a professional demeanor yet highly focused on the issue at hand,” he said. “He was unafraid to follow up if the answer received was unclear,” he said.

Amanda Salzhauer P ’18 ‘20 ‘23, who currently serves on the Board of Trustees, met Graham in 2006 as Nursery Division parents, and knew him as a friend before becoming colleagues on the Board, she said. Salzhauer greatly appreciated Graham’s contributions to the Board. “He was a positive force,” she said. “Graham was incredibly engaged and always enriched board discussions.”

Graham had a meaningful effect on the school’s Board of Trustees, Kelly said. “He pushed us, all of us, to do better and be better, and he had zero interest in favoring any one group over another,” Kelly said. 

Like Kelly, Board Chair Larry Grafstein P’11 P’12 P’15 said that Graham contributed tremendously to the board over the years. “A highly valued member of our Executive Committee, he was a wonderfully positive and energetic presence who leaves a profound and powerful legacy at our school. We are devastated that we lost him far too soon but will always remember and be inspired by him.” Kelly and the Board of Trustees are planning a tribute to Graham to honor his memory, Grafstein said.

Graham was specifically an asset to the Development Committee of the Board of Trustees, Parento said. “In recent years, he would request to be the Trustee Liaison for parents in our Three’s program, saying that he loved sharing the excitement of families who were just starting their HM journey,” she said. “We, of course, were thrilled to have him take on this role, as he was one of the warmest, most inclusive members of our community and immediately made our new families feel welcomed.”

One of Friedman’s lasting memories of Graham is the way Graham supported him and offered encouragement while Friedman helped the school navigate its response to child abuse allegations that surfaced in 2012, Friedman said. “To this day, I believe if it were not for Larry and a few other trustees, I am not sure I could have maintained the emotional or physical strength to get through the challenges we faced,” he said. “Those times showed what he was made of: intellectual honesty, endless energy to do what he thought was right and an ability to support and show empathy to others when they needed it.”