OXFORD — Gordon Graves, a former town commissioner and president of the Oxford Museum who was instrumental in paying off the museum’s mortgage debt, establishing a local dog park and the Oxford Conservation Park, as well as restoring the historic Oxford Mews building, died on Christmas Day, Dec. 25. He was 81.

Graves died from Lymphoma, a rare cancer in the lymphatic system that hosts the lymph nodes and spleen. His family announced his death in an obituary in The Star Democrat, saying Graves peacefully slipped the surly bonds of earth with his beloved Phyllis at his side — in death as in life.”

“Raise a glass and toast a witty ... guy who was always comfortable in his own skin, was a great listener, gave sage advice but never insisted you follow it, and was the first to laugh at himself,” the obituary said. “He will be sorely missed but will live on in our hearts.”

Graves was not an Eastern Shore native, but when he moved to Oxford in 2002 after his retirement, he immediately fell in love with and embraced the community, quickly becoming an icon.

He’d serve as an elected official for nearly a decade and as a longtime Oxford Community Center volunteer and helping hand. Graves was always there for others in need.

His influence was twofold: a welcoming friend to share a laugh or a drink with at community events, where he was often found as the designated bartender, and a beloved and well-respected political leader.

As a town official, he led with impassioned vigor, resilience and careful thought on every project he put his name on. Graves pushed Oxford through some of its most challenging and difficult times, paving the way for the town’s defining changes in the 2010’s.

When Graves helped pay off the Oxford Museum’s mortgage, he became an instant hero, relieving the organization from financial strain. In addition to assisting the town establish two parks and revitalize the historic Mews building downtown, he was a focal point in upgrading the Oxford’s wastewater treatment plant.

His contributions are vast, said Ray Stevens, the manager of the Benson & Mangold real estate office in Oxford. He wrote an email to residents shortly after the former commissioner’s death, noting that Grave’s work permeates throughout the town.

”When you pass the clock on the corner of the Museum property, think of Gordon; that is another reminder of what Gordon contributed. He was proud of that clock and is responsible for the money raised and the installation,” Stevens wrote. “When you pass the Blue Star Memorial in the Town Park, please give a nod to Gordon again.”

Gordon Graves was born in 1939 in Canton, Ohio, a state where he spent his youth.

His interests as a young man often involved hands-on activities. He was especially fond of tinkering with old electronics or other small crafts, and later in life he would become a clocksmith, train-set builder and gunsmith.

“He liked taking things apart and putting them back together,” said his longtime partner of 30 years, Phyllis Rambo. “He did a lot of marine thermometers and ship clocks. Eventually he migrated to regular antique clocks. He would buy, sell and do work for people.”

He attended Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, and earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. He landed a job on the East Coast, at Rider University in New Jersey, in 1966. He was an administrative head for the audio, visual and television services department there.

While he was in a previous marriage and had two children with his first wife, Graves met Rambo, the love of his life, at Rider University, where she worked as the director of human resources.

”We were friends for about 12 years before we got together,” said Rambo, saying they never got married but had a passionate romance. “I miss having him here to talk to and share things with.”

The couple moved to Baltimore in 1993, when Graves retired early. At the end of the decade, they were ready to leave again, Rambo said.

”We were ready to leave Baltimore and Gordon knew I liked living by the water. I was still traveling, and when I came home, I told him, ‘I found a town you would like,’” she said. “He came down to visit our friend here, and two weeks later we moved in. The small town (had a) sense of community, and it was surrounded by the water.”

When the couple found a place in Oxford in 2002, they decided to get involved with the community. Both volunteered at a local Habitat for Humanity chapter, and, soon enough, Graves had started picking up more volunteer work at the Oxford Community Center, which would become a a life commitment.

Graves bartended at events, assisted with fundraisers, donated money and even emceed on stage at a September 26, 2020 event, for the Oxford Business Association — at 81 years old and still battling cancer.

“He was up on the stage, egging people to increase their bids,” said Liza Ledford, the executive director of the Oxford Community Center. “He was gregarious and got people stirred up to support.”

Ledford said he frequently joined their coffee clubs with a smile, and was indispensable in the community.

“He always had a smirk and a smile. Everyone always wanted to know what he was thinking to have that smirk on his face,” she said. “People respected his opinions so much. Many people from all walks of life called him for his opinion —he was so accessible and honest — and he listened to what your questions and needs were.”

Graves joined the Oxford Museum and served as its president for two years, from 2009 to 2011. He donated a train set to the museum and a civil war gun, but he was most known for leading them toward financial stability.

”He came at a time in the Museum’s history when we needed him the most,” wrote Julie Wells, the current president at the Oxford Museum, in a memorial post published on the organization’s website. “We had just purchased the building we are currently in, and Gordon feared for our financial future. He made it his mission as president to pay off the mortgage.”

Graves had never been president of anything before, but those working at the museum at the time said they never would have guessed it.

Graves’ strong leadership was noticeable, as he paid off the museum’s debt in just three years, by 2014. He did so through private donations and fundraisers, including one of the largest ones the organization has ever had, an event that partnered with the Oxford Inn.

“Gordon’s successful drive to pay off the mortgage has to go down as one of the top three events in the museum’s history — right up there with the museum’s founding in 1964 and buying the building,” said Lee Nollmeyer, a curator, in the blog post.

As a town commissioner for nine years and three months, Graves spearheaded some of the most important developments in town.

When he ran for office in 2011, he promised to bring stability to the town, according to a June Star Democrat interview.

”The biggest issues facing the town are the timeliness of the decision-making process and the sometimes contentious rhetoric between citizens and town officials,” he said at the time. “As a nine-year resident, active in the community, I feel I have a sense of what Oxford is, and could make a positive contribution if elected.”

After winning election in a landslide, he quickly got to work. That year, he helped install the Oxford town clock in front of the Oxford Museum. It was an antique timepiece with an illuminated dial for a commissioner who had passed away.

Previous efforts had failed and fizzled out in 2006, until Graves came along.

”It’s a project that’s overdue and I felt it should be moved along,” he said simply.

The clock has since become a classical little monument in town.

Graves was the Oxford Town Commission’s president in 2013 when they approved the Oxford Dog Park, which now attracts residents all over Talbot County. Even so, Graves was an avid cat lover, with a particular fondness for the family cat, Cleo.

”I have no dog in this fight, I’m a cat owner,” he said proudly that year in The Star Democrat.

In 2016, Graves assisted in establishing Oxford Conservation Park. While many were skeptical of it at first, the park was designed with the environment in mind and has since attracted residents across the Eastern Shore to it, contributing to the natural area around the Chesapeake Bay.

A recent decision he made was to upgrade the town’s wastewater treatment plant, an $11 million dollar operation.

Graves was successful in securing 80% of the needed money from grants, pushing the small town of Oxford to adopt Enhanced Nutrient Removal (ENR), or the most modern technology available. Upgrading wastewater treatment plants has left towns in deep debt before, including in neighboring Trappe.

The Oxford Mews building restoration was another contentious battle. It was a historic building that had fallen into deep disrepair, and people in town wanted to restore it, but it would be costly.

Graves and town clerk Cheryl Lewis won a $300,000 grant for the project and successfully restored it by 2019. A future goal for Oxford Mews is to reshape the building into a mixed-use facility owned by a private company.

Graves retired from the commission in October, but he has publicly mentioned what his worries were for Oxford in the near future, specifically calling out climate change and rising sea levels as a threat for the town.

This year, Oxford enrolled in a flood-prevention program from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that lowers flood insurance rates and encourages better flood protection for homes.

Rambo, his spouse, said she, and many in town, will deeply miss his company. But his legacy will always beat at the heart of Oxford.

”He was a pretty simple guy who knew who he was and was happy with what he had,” she said. “He was very respected. I don’t think he ever realized the impact he had on the people.”

Graves is survived by his partner of 30 years, Phyllis Rambo; daughters Traci Paterson (Gary Beasley) and Deborah Graves; stepchildren Monique Rambo (Craig Saunders) and Christopher Rambo (Jennifer); eight grandchildren; many other family and friends; and his faithful companion, Cleo the cat, who sorely misses his warm lap.

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