“He was larger than life.”
“He worked hard; he played hard.”
“He loved to live big, but he loved to give big, too.”
Most people who know of Hardy Graham Sr. would credit him with a having a keen business acumen demonstrated by decades of success as the head of Meridian Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
But, for the people who really knew and loved him, all agree he was also a man of kindness and generosity.
Mr. Graham, 74, passed away Wednesday, March 24.
Born in Meridian, Mr. Graham and his parents moved to Union City, Tennessee, when he was four years old.
A standout athlete, Mr. Graham graduated in 1960 with honors from Union City High School. He went on to play basketball for the University of Mississippi, where he eventually received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1964 and a Master of Arts in 1965.
The U.S. Navy commissioned Mr. Graham in 1964, and he served his country from 1965-1968. He attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he achieved the rank of lieutenant and served as an instructor.
After completing his military obligation, Mr. moved to Washington, D.C., where he obtained his law degree at Georgetown Law Center following in his father’s footsteps.
According to Ben Nelson, President of Hart Davis Hart Wine Co., Mr. Graham began collecting fine wines around 1966 when he was based in Annapolis.
While in Washington, he joined Les Amis du Vin, an international wine society focusing on fine wine and food. This passion for wine collecting stayed with him his entire life as he continued to expand his wine cellar.
Graham returned to Meridian at that time to work at Meridian Coca-Cola. By 1979, he was president and served as chairman of the board from 1986 to his death.
Hardy Graham, Jr. recalls his father coming to work every day and participating in every aspect of the business.
“He was a hands-on man,” he said. “He went to law school to understand all the components of the family business. Our company was founded in 1902, and he wanted to continue in the path set forth by his great grandfather, Richard Newell Poindexter, in 1904,” he says.
Hardy Graham, Jr. emphasized how important giving back to the community was to his father.
“The community helped build our business,” he said. “The community had to thrive for our business to thrive. As a result, my father carried that spirit of philanthropy that began early on. His church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, was important to him as well the educational institutions here,”
“My father was a patron of Meridian Community College (for whom the gym is named), The University of Mississippi, and MSU-Meridian. His strong sense of civic duty extended to support the Rotary Club, Boy Scouts, 4-H Advisory Council, State Games of Mississippi, the Boys and Girls Club of Meridian, the Meridian Museum of Art, the Meridian City Planning Commission, and the Meridian-Lauderdale County Partnership. The many academic buildings and rooms honoring him are a testament to his devotion to education and service.”
Mr. Graham’s daughter Lee Keeton also recalls her father’s devotion to education and hard work.
“He would donate anonymously to so many causes, she added, noting his philanthropic spirit. “He didn’t want the recognition; he just wanted to share what he had. I remember his sending a number of guys to Boy Scout camps during summers. He was a generous man.”
Hardy Graham, Jr. fondly recalls the adventures he had with his father and his tennis group.
“My Dad had his core group of tennis buddies: Jerry Greene, Robert Bailey, Tommy Dobbins, Gary Lawyer, and Fred Hulett,” he said. “When the group decided they had too many aches and pains to play tennis, they began their annual fishing trips in the 1980s. Lately, I took the guys out on the seas to fish. They had the best time, and they were not afraid of the rough water.”
Bailey remembers the trips well.
“We cooked; we caught the limit, and we always had a great trip,” he says. “He was an amazing man, so smart.”
Jerry Greene, president of Hotel and Restaurant Supply, agrees.
“For the longest time, we met every Monday night to play tennis,” he recalled. “Our fishing trips on the weekend replaced our tennis matches. He would invite us to come, and he had everything planned. He just loved to coordinate it all. He was the most generous, down-to-earth guy.”
Greene remembers Mr. Graham surprising him, Dobbins, and Graham’s younger brother, Newell, with a trip to Guatemala.
“We flew in at night. We were picked up in a van and taken to a fortress, complete with an armed guard. There was a concrete and steel fence around the place. It was like being back in the United States.”
Mr. Graham’s brother, Newell Graham, the managing partner for Union City Coca-Cola Bottling Company, chuckles at this memory as well.
“Our parents traveled when we were young,” he recalled. “They took us along on these trips as our mother didn’t want to leave us alone. That trip to Guatemala was probably my most memorable trip with Hardy.”
The Graham brothers always had fun, but their father also taught them the value of hard work and manual labor.
“When Hardy and I were teenagers, our father, a tax attorney, bought 8,000 turkeys and put us in charge of taking care of them, getting them ready to sell at Thanksgiving,” Newell Graham recalled. “My mother would go out in those pens with us, and those turkeys would peck at her skirt. The next summer, Dad bought 12,000 turkeys for us to take care of. Whether it was digging a ditch or taking care of turkeys, we learned to do the job and to do the job right.”
Fred Hulett, who now lives in New Orleans, remembers his decades-long friendship with Mr. Graham.
“We met at Ole Miss during the 1960s,” he recalled. “I went on fishing trips, but I also went on many wine tasting trips in Europe. On one trip, my wife and I flew separately from the Grahams. We were to take a bus tour with restaurant owners and wine journalists, but Hardy’s plane was delayed in arriving. He missed our departure. I will never forget all of those wine connoisseurs looking out of the bus windows at a taxi chasing us on a gravel road. There was Hardy, a day late; he wanted to make sure he didn’t miss out on the fun.”
Dottye Graham, Mr. Graham’s wife of 10 years, described her husband as “larger than life,” her “knight in shining armor.”
“He was a person of integrity; he was all business, but his compassion was there too,” she said. “He was always so generous with the church, his community, anyone who needed a helping hand.”
She remembers her husband and his love of travel, his zest for life, and of course, his wine.
“He hand-cut the brick used in the wine cellar,” she said. “Then, he lined the floor with glass coke bottles. He was so meticulous in his design. He cataloged and categorized all of the bottles of wine there. There might have been thousands of bottles there at times, and he knew where every single one was by heart. He just had a brilliant mind.”