A force of nature: ‘When Don Graham walked into a room, the room brightened’

By Craig Westcott | The Irish Loop Post (Vol. 12 No. 2)

He was a big man with a booming voice and a gentle bear of a personality that couldn't mask a razor-sharp mind and a compulsion for straightforwardness. Don Graham was one of the most respected businessmen and municipal leaders on the Southern Shore and when he died earlier this month at the age of 74, nobody was going to keep his friend and former fellow fish plant owner Bud O'Brien, 78, from braving bad weather to attend his funeral.

O'Brien, the long-time owner of a major fish plant in Bay Bulls, knew Graham since he was a boy. And while they were competitors of sorts in the fish business, O'Brien couldn't help but admire the former taxi driver from Aquaforte who built up a multi-species plant that flourished in the fisheries' good times and managed to grimly hold on during the hard times when many others failed.

"His father, Vivian Graham, owned a little general business in Aquaforte," said O'Brien. "And they did a little bit of everything, taxiing, trucking. And when Don got older he took over and started taxiing, running to St. John's. That was part of life on the Southern Shore, every community had its own taxi, or two or three maybe depending on the size of the community. And Don was into that."

Graham started growing his trucking enterprise by running loads of fresh fish. Then the government happened to build a community stage in Aquaforte on the outside of The Pool, as part of a fisheries expansion program throughout the province. Graham was well positioned to move into the fish plant business. Having grown up in Aquaforte, he was well acquainted with the fishery.

"The commercial bankers from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia and those places, and prior to that from Gloucester (Massachusetts) would put in there for bait and for some supplies and rest and recreation and get a couple of days off fishing," said O'Brien. "There was a whole history of that around in that area. And he just kind of followed on, one step leading to another."

In the early days, Graham had a partner in the fish business in the form of Gary Hearn of Bay Bulls. Hearn and Graham happened to marry a pair of sisters, the Noonans, from Petty Harbour Road in the Goulds.

Graham and Hearn used their fledgling operation as a feeder plant for bigger companies, including for a while, O'Brien.

"Then times got a bit better and they made a few bucks and decided to go all the way and put in refrigeration," said O'Brien. "If there was a buck in it, they'd freeze it and work at it."

Their timing was good. "In the '60s a miracle happened in Newfoundland - we were blessed all of a sudden for three or four years where nothing failed," said O'Brien.

The herring, mackerel and capelin fisheries were good, but the money catch was squid. "That came in abundance and along with the abundance, big markets," said O'Brien. "It was almost like you could do nothing wrong if you were in the fish business."

Graham and Hearn took advantage of it. When another freezing plant became available in Petty Harbour, Hearn set up shop down there and he and Graham parted on friendly terms, remaining great friends down through the years.

All of a sudden, meanwhile, fish plants started popping up everywhere on the island as the governments of the day started using fish processing licences as election ploys and as a means of trying to put Newfoundland's swelling population to work, even if just seasonally. Plants opened in Calvert, Ferryland, Cape Broyle, Tors Cove, and two in Petty Harbour.

"That kind of took the cream off some of it," O'Brien allowed. "You couldn't always call the shots as good because there was a hell of amount of competition."

With so many plants on the go, the smaller ones ran into problems selling their fish into the American market. Graham and Hearn and several others formed their own joint marketing company.

"Then came the years of the struggles," said O'Brien. "Capelin disappeared, or got smaller in catches, the Japanese (buyers) got tougher to deal with, herring got tougher to deal with." Even squid, which is a cyclical fishery anyway, "just up and disappeared."

O'Brien said for a long time, running a plant the size of Graham's was little better than subsistence. Then the cod moratorium, in the early 1990s, all but took that fishery away too.

"It was very tough," O'Brien said. "You'd just barely make it through a year and into another year. It went on like that for a number of years and then, somehow or other, he came up with a crab licence and the crab licence valued the plant an awful lot."

With the cod moratorium having thrown tens of thousands of Newfoundland fishing families out of work and scurrying to Alberta and other places in search of livelihoods, fishing communities, like Aquaforte, found their local workforces depleted. Graham became a regional employer, drawing workers all the way from Trepassey and St. Vincent's. He managed to keep the plant, and as the long-time mayor of Aquaforte, the community itself, going. He managed to build up his business enough to make Aqua Fisheries an attractive target for other fish processors looking to buy it as Graham neared his retirement.

Despite all the risk, stress and hard work that comes from running a large enterprise, Graham knew how to enjoy life.

"He certainly was full of life, there's no question at all about it," said O'Brien, who shared a glass of rum and a song with him at times. "I was thinking the other day, a lot of Newfoundlanders went to St. Petersburg (Florida) for bits of time in the wintertime, but the fellow who owned the joint down there was Don Graham. Everybody down there would know him, he was Newfoundland's stalwart."

Graham also wore out several motorhomes, venturing as far as Alaska one trip. "He loved driving, because he was a great driver," said O'Brien. "Being a taxi man on this Shore was no piece of cake, I can tell you. The roads - you couldn't hardly call them roads (when Graham started out). And that was what Don did."

While Graham's sons are well known as musicians in the province, Don himself was also a great singer, O'Brien noted. "He was a big, big promoter of country and western music,” he added. “This Shore was well known for its folk music, very heavy into Irish and Newfoundland and other folk music, but Don was a true, blue western guy. His gods were George Jones and that crowd. Wherever Don was, a western song wasn't far from his lips."

For those who knew him, Graham even looked the part of a hero in a western movie.

"Don't say I said this, but he was a big, handsome fellow," said O'Brien, laughing. "And he married a lovely woman, a teacher, Elizabeth. And thank God for him, during lots of tough years, she helped him keep it all going."

O'Brien and his son Con, the lead man with the Irish Descendants, both sang at Graham's funeral. It was a brutish winter day, but the Anglican Church in Aquaforte was packed.

"He was a well-known, well-liked fellow along this Shore," said O'Brien, who never screwed anyone he did business with. And he was smart as well as outspoken.

"He was as tough as nails," said O'Brien. "Politics to Don was like a guitar, if it was in tune, play her. If he liked the person who was in the political arena, good, but if he didn't, good too, because he really didn't care. There were certain people around this shore he would not vote for or would not support."

But Graham was also a unifier, O'Brien pointed out, especially at the local level in one of the few communities along the Shore - Petty Harbour and Bay Bulls being the others - where the people were of mixed religion. "Don's father's family was Church of England and several of the big families in Aquaforte were Church of England," said O'Brien. "They managed to keep up their little church under the toughest kind of goings when churches (elsewhere) were failing. I think the Micks there wanted to keep the little Anglican church going too. That's the way they were and Don was like that.

"He was a great man. He was opinionated, but he was ready to back it up... I always say there are two or three types of human beings. There's one who always keeps the room bright. When he walked into a room, the room brightened. No matter how tough everything was, it brightened."


Posted on February 7, 2019 .