I really loved Ross Graham. She recently died and I wanted to write my personal tribute to her in a way that everyone else might understand. That’s because we all had someone like Ross Graham in our lives – a person who made such a difference on our development as human beings and as professionals. Without them, we simply would not be who we are.
Around 1964, I was lucky enough to be chosen for a NIMH (National Institutes of Mental Health) doctoral fellowship at NYU. It was a beautiful thing. All tuition and expenses were covered and we got a monthly stipend that was really quite generous. I was very fortunate, having gone to Hunter in the Bronx (free) and then American University (full scholarship) and then this great program a NYU. The NYU program was designed to train political scientists in the politics of mental health.
The powers that be told me I would need an internship in politics and mental health. I approached City Councilman Ted Weiss who said that mental health was not his area but his friend and fellow West Sider, Manfred (Fred) Ohrenstein, was just made Chairman of the new Mental Health Committee in the State Senate. He got that committee as a kind of consolation prize because the major committees had been grabbed up due to a power struggle between then Mayor Robert Wagner and Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s side lost and hence he got mental health which turned out to be a great thing for me. Fred’s wife was a top psychiatric social worker which I have always suspected was another reason behind his choice. I would point out that the Democrats only had control of that majority for a single year but that’s another story.
When I called Fred’s office, they immediately put me in touch with Ross Graham, Fred’s Chief of Staff, who took me under her wing. I can’t begin to tell you how important that proved to be. She instructed me in the ways of the state Legislature, West Side politics, and political insurgency. In those days, they had Joint Legislative Committees, and when I was done being a graduate intern, Ross made sure that I was on the paid staff. There were two kinds of people hired for Fred Ohrenstein’s staff. Some were the political people and some, like me, were the workers. I worked very hard for Fred. I showed up early and stayed late and Ross and Fred made sure that I was always paid to do something. It went for years and years. Only after I started the Legislative Gazette did I quit.
If I had a question about anything, I asked Ross. She was wonderful. She played a huge part in her community. She was early into environmental politics. Most of all, she was an incredibly polished political operative. We all know that she was THE major force in getting Fred Ohrenstein elected and reelected.
She SHOULD have been elected to the Assembly but let’s just say that two of the best and most powerful men in politics had a lot to do with denying her elected office. Ross should have insisted but the times were different. Now she is being lauded as an early feminist. She was, but what happened to her back then just wasn’t nice.
Suffice it to say that when I was writing my doctoral dissertation and really needed help, there she was. She went out of her way to spend time with me and explain what had happened to pass mental health legislation in New York. She never seemed to want anything back from anyone. It is interesting how many people are thinking about Ross now that she has passed. A lot of us have good reason to think about someone who did so much for so many people.