Graham's legacy at UWA now includes Kappa Alpha Psi scholarship
At left, Kappa Alpha Psi's Charles Woods and Kendalle Jackson at the fraternity's homecoming gathering this year. At right, Ronald Dra Graham played defensive line for the Tigers in the 1970s. (Photo credits: left, Betsy Compton; right, Michele Graham Bradford.)
Fraternity's Iota Theta Chapter awards first recipient
Story: Phillip Tutor
It’s understandable that Michele Graham Bradford unpacks memories of her late brother as if he were sitting beside her, smiling as she speaks. The recollections flow easily, sincere as the summer day is long. “He meant the world to us,” she said, “but every year we find out what he meant to other people, as well. He was just a great man.”
Her brother, Ronald Dra Graham, holds a significant place in the University of West Alabama’s history in large part because of his efforts to form the campus’ first Greek-letter organization for Black students. Without Graham, who came to then-Livingston University on a football scholarship from Attalla, Alabama, and graduated in 1976, the Iota Theta Chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity might not exist at UWA.
Bradford considers her brother a visionary, a large man with mild manners, an intuitive mind and innate leadership skills that transcended sports. Unforgettable, in other words. “If you followed his life,” she said, “you can see that he was a visionary.”
To honor that legacy, UWA’s Kappa Alpha Psi chapter has renamed its recently created student scholarship as the Ronald Dra Graham Scholarship and selected its first recipient -- UWA freshman Hailey Hill, a nursing major from Louisville, Mississippi. She will receive a $2,000 scholarship for the 2022-23 academic year.
“I came here for the Preview Day and I loved it,” said Hill, who wasn’t aware of Graham’s UWA legacy until she met his family during homecoming activities in October. “I just loved how small it was. And being that I'm kind of introverted, I really thought it was a great fit for me.”
The birth of a fraternity chapter
The Graham Scholarship’s origin at UWA traces to conversations between Kappa Alpha Psi members interested in furthering the fraternity’s national tradition of giving back to the community, said Dr. Charles Woods, a two-time UWA graduate who is a professor of biology at Miles College and chairs its Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Woods said he and many of his fraternity brothers consider UWA as a “foundational point” in their professional careers, hence the award’s original name, the Legacy Scholarship.
“From a fraternity perspective, because we are a service organization, we want to try to create an avenue where we can assist young students,” Woods said. “We're very inclusive; we don't have any restrictions on the scholarship. We want a way to help defray the cost of education. We always talk about the importance of putting things in order to help the next generation.”
That spirit of assistance isn’t lost on Dr. LaJuan Hutchinson, an associate professor of sport management at UWA and a Kappa Alpha Psi member who serves as the fraternity’s campus advisor. He’s quick to mention the national organization’s birth at Indiana University in 1911, marveling that those students endured the process of starting a fraternity for Black males decades before the civil rights movement.
“There were often times when being in the fraternity could have been a negative because it is a historic fraternity and it's established to better the lives of African-American males,” Hutchinson said. “It wasn't always an open door to start, but we did get the chapter here and it's been established since that time and we want to give back. The scholarship is to help students going forward, male or female.”
Graham ‘crossed all lines’
Nearly five decades after the founding of UWA’s Kappa Alpha Psi chapter, stories still resonate about Graham’s unrelenting commitment to convince his teammates and others to join his effort. Bradford, who graduated from then-LU in 1977, remembers how her brother’s positive reputation soothed opposition to the chapter’s start, especially from the Tigers’ football coaches. Getting certain people to “buy into” the notion of a Black greek organization in the mid-1970s was not easy, she said.
“The (football) staff and those in power at that point have to have had some respect for him and the guys that came to them, because if not, they would not have allowed it,” Bradford said. “They had respect for Ronald because he was someone everyone could get along with. He crossed all lines.”
Kappa Alpha Psi member Harold Goodman, one of Graham’s teammates, recalls that the Tigers’ coaches of that era “were completely against it because they thought we were going to be cut out of the same mold with the other fraternities, just partying and drinking beer all the time. But that's not what we were about. That wasn't our reason for wanting to start it.” Graham and other Black students not only wanted to create an organization embedded with positivity, they also wanted something they felt they didn’t have in Livingston.
“Your impression would be that this is someone I want to know because he's nice and purposeful, and it's very obvious that he has quite a bit of substance in everything he does."
-- Michele Graham Bradford
“The main thing is that as black students, we just didn't have anything to do on campus,” Goodman said. “That's why we started it, because we just needed something to do. We needed an organization … We wanted to have a college life experience, also. And it brought a lot of joy to people because we work hard.”
With Graham playing the leading role in making that happen, Woods said, UWA’s Kappa Alpha Psi chapter assumed a critical role for the increasing number of Black students on campus -- a direct link to the national organization’s founding at Indiana. Today, there are 13 greek-letter fraternal organizations on UWA’s campus, including eight that are traditional African-American organizations. “The fraternity itself became a social outlet for those persons of color, especially young men, to bond around a common interest, and that was to get an education, to make changes in your community, and to also give back,” Woods said.
‘He was the guy you could always count on’
After graduating in Livingston, Graham embarked on a lengthy career as a coach and educator at high schools in Georgia in Alabama. Officials in Talbotten, Georgia, where Graham enjoyed a successful run as football coach, renamed the stadium there in his honor. He also served as an assistant coach at Fort Valley State University and several elected terms as a Marion County commissioner in Georgia. He retired from the Board of Education in Terrell County, Georgia, in 2006.
Woods wholeheartedly supported the rebranding of the chapter’s scholarship because of Graham’s reputation. Woods ticks off what’s he’s heard: that Graham was a dedicated family man, a splendid educator, an outstanding coach. “I’m glad the decision was made to honor him,” Woods said.
Goodman’s recollections of his teammate and fraternity brother are peppered with stories from their careers at Georgia high schools. He credits Graham for helping him getting his first job in Georgia. He praises Graham for not hesitating to pick him and his father up after they had car trouble in south Georgia while on a hunting trip. On another day, Graham agreed to drive Goodman to Florida to pick up a car he’d bought. Goodman had given him just two days notice. Graham didn’t flinch, not even when learning they’d have to leave at 2 in the morning. “He was the guy, no matter what you needed, you could always count on,” Goodman said.
In 2007, as Graham’s health failed and he entered the hospital, Goodman visited his old friend. There was so much to discuss, so much reminiscing to do. But Graham, the visionary leader, wouldn’t let the conversation sway into maudlin territory. He remained true to who he was.
“He spent that whole night telling me that I need to make sure that I took care of myself and for me to tell the rest of the brothers that whatever we do, to take care of ourselves,” Goodman said. “That whole time I was with him, he spent that time concentrating on us, trying to make sure that we took care of ourselves … That’s just the kind of person he was.”
The next day, Goodman said, Graham passed away.
If someone today could meet her brother for the first time, Bradford knows what they’d experience. “Your impression would be that this is someone I want to know because he's nice and purposeful, and it's very obvious that he has quite a bit of substance in everything he does,” she said. “That would have been your impression.”