WATERTOWN — The annual Sports Night at the Italian-American Civic Association has hosted some heavy hitters as guest speakers over the years, such as Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim; Bobby Valentine and Tommy John of Major League Baseball fame and Hall of Fame boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.
But for this year’s Sports Night on Wednesday, June 22, attention will turn to the lingering influence on the community a local legend created, with the daughter of that legend guest speaker.
On Thursday, the annual William I. Graf Award will be presented to the top graduating athletes, a boy and a girl, at Watertown High School. The Graf Award, sponsored by the Northern New York Community Foundation, honors seniors who have participated in two or more varsity sports in their senior year and demonstrated not only exceptional sportsmanship, but also character.
The Graf family honors each award recipient with $1,000.
The Graf Award was created in 1954 by the Italian-American Civic Association to honor the leadership and civic engagement in the community of William I. Graf, a multi-sport coach and athletic director at Watertown High School. Mr. Graf died at the age of 53 in 1954.
The Civic Association also invites past Graf Award recipients to attend the June 22 dinner.
“I’m just amazed at the success of the people chosen for the award,” said Phyllis N. Johnson, daughter of Mr. Graf, and the featured speaker for the dinner. “They’ve gone on to be outstanding citizens.”
The first William I. Graf Memorial Award, for 1953-54, was presented to Edward H. Barry, a 1954 graduate of WHS. He was a fullback on coach Lew Newton’s WHS team. According to Times’ files, he also played with the Johnnie’s Fruit baseball team that won the New York State Kiwanis baseball championship. He went on to play for the football and basketball squads at St. Lawrence University, Canton.
Mr. Barry died Aug. 12, 2021 at the age of 85 at Tarpon Springs, Fla. He had a 37-year career at Niagara Mohawk from 1956 to 1993.
“This year, we’re building up the Graf event to get some more past recipients,” said James P. Scordo, president of the Italian-American Civic Association. “We’ve got names, but no addresses or phone numbers. It’s kind of word of mouth.”
Mr. Scordo said it’s important that the Association maintains relationships with Graf award winners.
“Many of them have been highly successful,” Mr. Scordo said. “It was a big deal to receive this award. We want to encourage past recipients to come and attend and to support this year’s student athletes who are receiving the award. It’d be kind of neat if there are some others present that received the award 10 years ago, or 30 years ago, that are here just to say, ‘Hey, welcome to the club.’”
“Talking to some students, it amazes me how important it was,” Mrs. Johnson said of the award.
“There’s something to be said for kids today who still talk about the importance of the award,” said Max M. DelSignore, assistant director at the Northern New York Community Foundation. “Those who are in athletics, especially at Watertown, say this is kind of the ultimate achievement, the pinnacle of high school athletic success in receiving this accolade. I think it’s a credit to the club to have built the foundation of what the recognition means for so many decades. There’s the character piece that’s included, also.”
School, community engagement
Mr. Graf, a native of Stamford, Conn., graduated from Connecticut Agricultural College, now University of Connecticut. He then studied physical education at Springfield College in Massachusetts. He graduated from there in 1924, and was hired at Gouverneur schools as football coach and director of physical education. He also helped to form a baseball league in the community, demonstrating a passion for community engagement that would be expressed in Watertown beginning in 1926 when he became director of physical education at city schools and coach of teams.
When he departed Gouverneur in 1926, the Times wrote, “Although strict in disciplinary tactics with his proteges, Coach Graf has won an unusual amount of respect both in school circles and outside. winning games has been an aim of the Graf-coached teams, but the ethics of clean sportsmanship has not been overlooked.”
In 1926, his first year as WHS football coach, his team went undefeated, a record repeated in 1940. He was the first NNY coach to use the “T” formation in football. His basketball teams were also consistent winners. He also coached baseball and track.
Mr. Graf was also Watertown’s first municipal recreation director and his community service included being campaign director of Jefferson County’s March of Dimes fund for its polio drive and an officer in the Red Cross blood bank program.
Mrs. Johnson, who was 20 when her dad died, will share stories about him. Last week, she shared one with the Times.
“Mom (Mrs. Helen G. Dygert Graf) told me a story about when someone asked her what it was like to be married to Bill Graf,” she said. “She said, ‘Well, I came home from the hospital with a new baby, and in those days, they stayed for two weeks. Then, I was moved into a new home and Bill brought the Philadelphia Athletics for lunch. And I sat and made ham sandwiches for them.”
She added, “He was busy all the time. It’s nice having an idol besides somebody on TikTok.”
a ‘great example’
Lee “Gus” Murray, whose mother was a sister to Mrs. Johnson’s mother, has presented the Graf award in person to students with Mrs. Johnson. Mr. Murray said a recent “great example” of attributes associated with the Graf award is Jillian Girardi, who received the Graf award in 2017. She received the award along with WHS classmate Peter Victoria.
Ms. Girardi played five years on the girls varsity lacrosse team, helping the Cyclones to two Section 3 championships and a pair of state final four appearances. She was a high school All-American and three-time Frontier League all-star. She also made league all-star status twice on the Cyclones soccer team. Ms. Girardi received a scholarship from Northwestern University and played Division 1 lacrosse for the Wildcats, closing out her field time there in May when North Carolina rallied in the third quarter for a victory over the Wildcats during a semifinals match. During the game, Ms. Girardi set the Northwestern single-season record for draw controls, at 182.
“If you followed her career at Northwestern, she got recreated as a lacrosse player at least twice,” Mr. Murray said. “And in her last year, she became the face-off leader in the country. That’s not something she did in her first four years. Those are the sorts of dimensions that I think a lot of people talk about.”
“Looking back on who has won it, it’s prestigious and showcases the great talent that Watertown has athletically and academically,” Ms. Girardi said. “It shows all the hard work that all these athletes have put in throughout the years in high school. Understanding more about the history of the award and understanding Mr. Graf, and his passion for sports and all that, showed that it was much more than an award.”
Ms. Girardi, who graduated in May, is now looking into possibly coaching, or sports marketing or the business side of sports.
“I’ll still be involved in sports as much as possible,” she said. “That’s been my whole life, and hopefully staying with lacrosse as well.”
a heritage award
It wasn’t until about a half-dozen years ago that the Graf award came with a $1,000 scholarship. Its overseers say the award has always been about much more than any financial boost.
“That just amazed me — that there wasn’t money involved with it for all those years, until the last four or five,” Mrs. Johnson said.
She said the funds for the scholarship program advanced following the death of William A. Graf, 85, her brother, in 2013. “His family contributed significant money to it, and then we added to it,” she said.
The NNY Community Foundation acts as steward of the Graf scholarship, such as it does with other charitable funds it oversees, Mr. DelSignore said.
“Having a chance to perpetuate the name and do this partnership with the club, that’s what we’re here to do,” he said. “For the financial piece, it’s really the family the ones that got it started and entrusting us to be the stewards of that money, and hopefully it can grow and perpetuate to do a little bit more for those students as they go along, year to year.”
For more than 20 years, the Graf Award was only given to males. The first female to receive the honor was in 1977, when it went to Sue Ann Kibling. In 2015, as Sue Gallagher, she was inducted into the Upstate New York chapter of U.S. Lacrosse’s Hall of Fame in East Syracuse. She began the Carthage girls lacrosse program and recorded more than 200 career wins. Ms. Gallagher retired in 2014, after 32 years as a physical education teacher at Beaver River and Carthage. She was the first girls varsity lacrosse coach in Jefferson County and in much of the north country.
“At the time, I never really thought too much about being the first female to receive the Graf award,” Mrs. Gallagher said. “ I didn’t realize the importance of females finally being recognized along with their male counterparts. But as I look back, it was these small steps that helped to provide our young girls recognition in athletics they are so deserving of. The Graf family realized this way back in 1977, and I deeply respect them for their insight.”
Graf and Gaffney
Mr. Scordo said that the Italian-American Civic Association became involved with the Graf award because the former coach had many athletes of Italian heritage on his teams. The Civic Association is also associated with the Clarence “Boots” Gaffney Award, which is presented annually by the Italian club to the most outstanding male and female athletes of the senior class at Immaculate Heart Central in Watertown. The late Mr. Gaffney was athletic director at IHA/IHC for 40 years.
“The Italian American Civic Association is also looking to establish a scholarship for the recipients of the Gaffney Award as well,” Mr. Scordo said.
The association was formed 83 years ago.
The June 22 recognition dinner will have plaques to recognize the top female/male student athletes from WHS with the Graf Award and the Gaffney Award for top female/male student athletes from IHC with the “Boots” Gaffney Award.
The association’s biggest event of the year, the Italian-American Festival, is scheduled for Aug. 26 and 27 at the Alex T. Duffy Watertown Fairgrounds ice arena. Events and hours haven’t been finalized, but the festival will include a Miss Italiana pageant on Aug. 26, the Run for Pasta on the morning of Aug. 27 and a Catholic Mass that evening.
“There will be good, Italian food throughout the weekend,” Mr. Scordo said. “Come on down with friends and family and support our organization.”
n WHAT: Awards dinner for the William I. Graf and “Boots” Gaffney recipients.
n WHEN: Next Wednesday, June 22 at the Italian American Civic Association, 192 Bellew Ave., Watertown. Social hour at 6 p.m., dinner at 7.
n FEATURING: Guest speaker is Phyllis N. Johnson, daughter of Mr. Graf.
n COST: Tickets are $13. The association, which has traditionally been associated with the awards, urges past recipients to attend.
n OF NOTE: To get an estimate on the number of dinners, ticket buyers should make reservations by calling the association at 315-782-1080.