RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS: Family Ties Lead to Lasting Memorial

Sunday, January 11, 2015, 11:41 am
Amy Buttery

Al Wolf and Ed Graham both taught Humanities at Michigan State, both joining the department in the mid-1960s and retiring in the early the 1990s. As the two raised their families in East Lansing, Ed and his wife Leah family became close friends with Al and his wife Emily, and their children grew up as friends.  The Graham children spent hours at the Wolf’s house exploring Emily’s dress-up trunk and staging historical dramas, and Ed famously broke his leg sliding into a base during a pickup baseball game in the Wolf’s back yard.

The family friendship continued to another generation, as Ed’s son Peter and his wife bought their first house across the street from Al and Emily, and Peter’s children grew up treating the Wolfs as another set of grandparents. Al and Emily’s older son John remained close to Ed Graham over the years as well, in part because of their shared interest in history.

About six years ago, John visited the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing and saw on display a cannon that had been discovered and retrieved from the Detroit River, one of five found in the river in the 1980s and 1990s. Historians believe they had been deliberately sunk in the River when British forces pulled out of Detroit back in 1796.

Although the cannon itself had been restored, the carriage on which the cannon rested was not built with the same attention to authenticity. John’s interest in history and skill in carpentry prompted him to offer to build a cannon carriage for the museum that would reflect more accurately the carriages of the period. John proposed to use only the tools and carpentry techniques that would have been used in the late 1700s, and curators at the museum agreed.

Around this time, Ed lost his wife, and John began to visit his old friend every Sunday evening, an activity Ed referred to as their “Bachelor Suppers.” Long after Ed was, himself, diagnosed with terminal cancer and could no longer eat the soups or stew John made in his farm kitchen, John continued to visit, the two discussing history, life and philosophy. In addition to a shared interest in history, Ed and John shared a passion for fine carpentry; John often brought a work in progress for Ed to see, and Ed gave John a set of beautiful antique tools that he knew John would not only cherish, but put to good use in his shop.

When the exhibit opened at The Michigan Historical Museum opened, John took his old friend Mr. Graham (as he calls him) to see the cannon, resting in the carriage he had made, at the museum in Lansing. Despite being only days past a series of major surgeries, Ed took great interest in it and enjoyed discussing it with John.

In July 2011 a sixth cannon was discovered in the Detroit River and retrieved in October. After undergoing conservation and restoration at Cranbrook Institute, this cannon was slated to be displayed by the Detroit Historical Society at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum at Belle Isle Park. Dan Harrison, a member of the curatorial staff of the Dossin, having seen John’s cannon carriage in Lansing, contacted him to request a replica “period” cannon carriage for the Belle Isle exhibit. John agreed and was excited about the chance to show his old friend the finished carriage. But Ed’s health continued to decline, and he died in April 2014, before John’s second carriage was completed.

Because he couldn’t share his finished product with Mr. Graham, John decided to honor his old friend in a unique and subtle way. On the builder’s plate—a small metal plaque that identifies the builder and is attached in an unobtrusive spot on the carriage—John dedicated the cannon carriage “In memory of Edward Graham.”

Ed’s son Peter was “incredibly moved” when he learned of this unexpected gesture of kindness and respect. “John was a good friend to my father, right up to the end of his life. To do a memorial that ties in with his love of history—that would mean a lot to my dad,” Peter said. He looks forward to taking his kids there in warmer weather, when they will look for the builder’s plate that honors their grandfather.

The cannon, embossed with the crest of King George II and believed to have been made in the mid-1740s, was unveiled on December 10 during a ceremony at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, by the police diver who found it in 2011. Read more about the cannon and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum here.

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