A legacy built on love of construction
In the more than 50 years since graduating from ASU, George J. Graef succeeded as a business owner, community leader, education advocate and family man
A single word suffices to describe the most valuable lesson George J. Graef Jr. taught his two children.
“Perseverance,” says Jill Graef, the eldest of his daughters.
“In your lifetime you will encounter many obstacles, and how you respond to those obstacles defines you as an individual,” she says, summing up the primary message of the guidance her father provided.
“He was the most responsible, hardworking and determined man you could ever have the pleasure of knowing. He had an inner strength that was admirable, and even though he’s not here I still get my strength from him every day,” she says. “You get up, you go to work and you keep going. That is what he always did.”
Jill Graef worked alongside her father for 22 years and today, with her sister Julie’s husband, Tim Golladay, runs Graef Construction, Inc., the Peoria, Arizona-based subcontracting company founded by her father in 1994 and managed by him for many of the 50-plus years he spent in the construction industry.
George J. Graef Jr., known to friends and business associates by his nickname, Jay, passed away November 17, 2021, at age 74. He began working in his chosen profession at 22, soon after his graduation in 1970 with a degree in construction from Arizona State University.
His perseverant spirit was evident even at that young age when during his sophomore year he was injured in an automobile accident that put him in a body cast. According to what Jill Graef has been told, he was advised to take a year off from school but refused.
“I was told that his parents hired a tutor, and he was able to continue his schooling from home for at least a semester,” she says. “He was in that cast for nine months, but he still graduated on time. That was the kind of person he was.”
George Graef was the first in his family to graduate from college and “loved being a member of the ASU alumni,” Jill Graef says.
Because of his injury and other circumstances, “he always regretted that he wasn’t able to join more student clubs and activities,” she says. “So, after he graduated, he made up for it by being very committed to the school for the rest of his life.”
Her father, who filled his business and home offices with ASU memorabilia, “was one of those people who truly enjoyed what he did for a living, and he was devoted to ASU for giving him the opportunity to be in the construction industry,” she says. “He was very proud of [ASU’s Del E. Webb School of Construction] and what it has achieved over the years. He wanted me to go there.”
Jill Graef instead graduated from ASU with a business degree, while her sister earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in education.
The construction school is part of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the seven Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU.
ASU construction school was part of the family
Graef was actively involved in the construction industry community throughout his career. For 20 years, from 1992 to 2012, he served on the Del E. Webb School of Construction’s alumni board, including a long stint as its president. He also organized the annual golf tournaments, which raised money for the school.
In 2004, he was named to the school’s Academy of Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame for his career achievements and community service. The honor recognizes outstanding alumni who “embody the spirit of the New American University and who show excellence in their professional work as well as compassion and support for their communities.”
“Taking care of his family was first and foremost in his life,” Jill Graef says, adding that he considered people who were involved with ASU’s construction school a part of his family, Jill Graef says.
Matthew Eicher, assistant director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, collaborated with Graef off and on for about 20 years.
Over that time, Eicher saw Graef join several other ASU construction graduates in the mid 1990s to revive the Del E. Webb School of Construction’s alumni chapter, whose activities and membership had been waning.
Eicher recalls the group eventually being officially recognized by the ASU Alumni Association “as an exemplar of an active alumni chapter and the way chapters should operate.”
He also remembers how Graef and a few other enthusiastic construction school supporters undertook efforts to reach out to teachers at local high schools and community colleges to inform them about construction education opportunities at ASU for young students.
“On their own time, they would take prospective ASU students from different high schools to project sites to show them the construction field in action,” Eicher says. “Jay and the others just went above and beyond in promoting ASU.”
Graef also served on the board of directors for the Arizona chapter of the Associated General Contractors, or AGC, and chaired its education committee for several years.
“Jay was very engaged with our chapter and very committed to helping students transition into the industry,” says the AGC chapter’s president, David Martin, an ASU graduate.
“He did a lot to make sure AGC and ASU were engaged with each other,” Martin says. “He also helped us engage with Northern Arizona University. He believed in the industry. He was committed to the betterment of our industry, of education and of individuals. That’s just who Jay was.”
Commitment to company and community
Jill Graef says her father also donated much of his time, as well as financial support, to a variety of local community events and charity benefits throughout his life. It all added up to a very busy life, and family members sometimes suggested he slow down a bit.
“He always talked about going fishing, but he never went. He didn’t take vacations,” she says. “He was an extremely hardworking man. I tried to talk him into retiring but he didn’t want to.”
Still, he managed to spend a lot of time with his family — which to him, she notes, included his golden retriever, Jonah Boy — and enjoyed ASU Sun Devil football games, as a season ticket holder for 51 years.
About an equal number of his years were spent with his wife, Rita, whom he met at his first job after college, with Mardian Construction in Phoenix.
His legacy will live on through Rita, Jill Graef says, “and the successful company he created, and in the determination that his daughters and granddaughters inherited from him.”