When officials approached Dallas Mayor Annette Strauss in the 1980s and asked if the city might be interested in hosting the largest sporting event in the world, she had one question for James Graham.
“What is this World Cup thing and should we try for it?” Graham’s longtime executive assistant Kristin Todora recalled the mayor asking.
Graham, an oil man who had been the president of the 1986-87 Major Indoor Soccer League champion Dallas Sidekicks, had a quick answer.
“Of course we should!” he told her, according to Todora.
This week, Todora and others mourned the loss of Graham, who died Wednesday of a heart attack at his home in Dallas. He was 72.
Graham, who began his career at Hunt Oil, became a giant civic figure in Dallas, not only for bringing the World Cup to the Cotton Bowl in 1994, but also for helping to revitalize Fair Park. He was also the founding chairman of the city’s Send a Kid To Camp program and helped transform the city’s parks landscape.
“He was so thrilled when Dallas got the World Cup,” said Pamela Graham, his wife of 45 years. “He and Lamar Hunt worked so hard on that. Every time FIFA came to town, he would make sure they were highly entertained. It was almost like divine intervention because we’d take them to Fair Park and it was a beautiful day and the birds were chirping. It was almost like things were planned that way.”
Graham also was a loving husband and father who was driven to help others, his wife said.
“He was in each and every way bigger than life,” she said. “He was the most fun, the most giving, the most loving. He just wanted to make sure everybody enjoyed every moment they had on this earth.”
Every morning, Graham greeted his wife with whimsically decorated cereal bowls filled with faces made out of cranberries, blueberries and other fruits, she said.
The couple turned an “Orphans Christmas Party” into an annual tradition. Graham would invite anyone who didn’t have anyone else or who had lost someone over to the house for Christmas Eve, his wife said, “and then he would bribe everyone into working for hours putting toys together for the kids.”
Graham put his housekeeper’s children through school, Pamela Graham said.
“His whole life was about helping other people,” she said. “So many people came to him for help, and he would never turn anyone away.”
That help extended far beyond Dallas city limits. Graham also helped save a Seattle alcohol and drug treatment center from closing its doors.
Graham knew Schick Shadel Hospital had to be saved, because he figured he might not be alive without it, his wife said.
“He was a real hell-raiser, and he knew it, too,” Pamela Graham said. “He’d be the first person to tell you he was an alcoholic and had problems with drinking, but about 20 years ago he got sober at Schick Shadel in Seattle, and he never forgot what that meant to him.”
One day, hospital officials approached Graham and said it was going under, Todora remembered.
Could he do anything to help?
“Of course he could,” Todora said. “He said, ‘It saved my life and I can’t let this disappear.’ He selflessly dedicated many years of his life to finding other investors and keeping Schick Shadel open.”
As a civic leader, Graham served as president, committee chair and member of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board, was a past president of the Friends of Fair Park. He also chaired the White Rock Lake Master Plan Development Committee and co-chaired the Fair Park Master Plan Development Committee.
He also served as a director for the Dallas Grand Prix at Fair Park and the Dallas 2012 Olympic Bid Committee.
In 2015 he was given the Spirit of the Centennial Award for his service to Fair Park.
But his greatest, lasting legacy to the city remains the 1994 World Cup, in which the Cotton Bowl hosted one of two opening matches — the other was in Chicago — and Dallas was home to the Cup’s International Broadcast Center.
Its economic impact in the region topped $300 million.
“Jim was the primary mover and the one who had the relationships with the [Fédération Internationale de Football Association] folks in Italy to bring the World Cup to Dallas,” said Paul Dyer, former director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. “I don’t think we would have had a World Cup in Dallas without Jim Graham. He was able to transform the Cotton Bowl into what FIFA called the best pitch in soccer.”
Graham is survived by his wife and two sons, Jace and Tyler Graham, two grandchildren with a third on the way, and several nephews, nieces and cousins.
Visitation is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home. A celebration of life will take place at 3 p.m. Thursday at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church.
“It’s been a wonderful life,” Pamela Graham said. “If there’s anybody the city should be proud of and love, it’s Jimmy. He was the best.”