Robert V. Graham, elected seven times as Washington State auditor, died at his Olympia home on April 16, four days past his 93rd birthday. Graham was raised in the Copalis Beach area and attended Grays Harbor College in the early 1940s.
John Hughes, chief historian for the Secretary of State’s Legacy Project, completed an oral history and profile of Graham just two weeks ago. “His mind was nimble until almost the end,” Hughes said. “During World War II, Bob was a flight engineer with the Army Air Transport Service, carrying cargo into the South Pacific. His oral history is part of a series we’re doing leading up to the 70th anniversary in 2015 of the war’s end. His passing underscores the urgency of capturing these ‘Greatest Generation’ stories before it’s too late.”
Graham was first elected state auditor in 1964, succeeding his mentor Cliff Yelle. Under Graham the Auditor’s Office underwent rapid modernization. He fought off an effort to privatize municipal audits, focused on preventing and detecting fraud, and instituted comprehensive training programs for his staff. A Democrat, Graham long maintained that the office of auditor should be nonpartisan. He retired in 1993.
Graham grew up in a dairy farm and logging family at Copalis Crossing, along the Humptulips River in rural Grays Harbor County. The family roots run deep in Scotland. He was a standout student and athlete at Moclips High School, graduating in 1939. Graham enrolled at the fledgling Grays Harbor Junior College in Aberdeen and became immersed in politics. As student body president in 1941, he played a key role in lobbying the Legislature and Governor Arthur Langlie to approve the first-ever state aid package for the two-year schools. The heady experience with lawmaking strengthened Graham’s goal to study law or accounting and pursue a career in government. World War II intervened.
On one of Graham’s last missions as flight engineer, his C-54 crew delivered materiel for the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima.
At war’s end, he secured his first job at the state Capitol, as a claims adjustor for the Department of Labor &Industries. Soon, however, he gravitated to the Auditor’s Office and steadily worked his way up to Cliff Yelle’s chief deputy. When Yelle announced his retirement in 1963, Graham sought the office. “I’d held every major administrative post in the agency,” Graham told Hughes. “It was the major crossroads of my government career: whether I should remain on the staff and take my chances when a new man — or woman — came in after the election or run for the auditor’s job myself. I chose to run. It was a hard-fought primary but I went on to win the general election with a 200,000-vote plurality in 1964. I was elected six more times. Over the years, I never lost an election — from president of the Newton Sunday School Choir, to student body president at Moclips and Grays Harbor Junior College and seven runs for state auditor. I also served three or four terms as elder of the Westminster Presbyterian Church here in Olympia. And I was Sunday School Superintendent for nine years. …
“During my years as auditor we brought the office into the modern era, and I put together a great team. We were hardnosed about the law, but fair and honest. The auditor and the auditee are often pretty difficult to bring together. But invariably I was able to bring people to the point where they felt … that they would be treated fairly. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. We also had fraud investigation courses. We received national awards for our accounting department. I always said that we were the ‘Largest CPA firm in the state.’ The federal General Accounting Office said our agency was one of the top 10 government accounting offices in the United States.”
Graham is survived by his wife of 69 years, Lloydine, five children, 12 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.