50 Years Later, Military Vet Celebrates Graduation

By ARVIN TEMKAR, USF NEWS Posted Tue, 12/12/2017 - 10:41

William Graff ’65 was the first in his family to graduate from college, but he never had a chance to celebrate. He was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War before he could walk in USF’s ceremony.  

Now, at 75, Graff will finally don his cap and gown at the Dec. 15 graduation ceremony. 

“This has been a big year for me,” Graff says. “Two of my former middle school students honored me with a birthday party in the school’s auditorium. I wondered what else I could do to celebrate, and I thought of USF.” 

Carry on in memory

Graff, born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District, was an accounting major at USF. He finished his credit requirements late in the summer of 1965 and was drafted just a few months later.

Accounting served him well in the Army, where he was stationed in the U.S. and Germany as a finance clerk. In basic training he met his best friend Bobby Johnston Jr., who grew up working-class in Brooklyn, New York. 

“We often discussed issues of gangs and street crimes common where we had grown up,” says Graff. “Bobby told me, ‘It’s on us, Billy. Once we’re done with the Army we need to make a life that helps people.’”

But Johnston, part of the Army’s engineering corps, never had that life. He was killed building a bridge in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

“When I got out, I felt it was up to me to carry on with our plan,” Graff says.

Lifetime mentor

When Graff returned to San Francisco, he decided the best way to make a difference was in his community. He came back to USF to earn a teaching credential, then spent much of his 30-year teaching career in the Mission.

He spent 18 years as a seventh and eighth grade teacher at his alma mater St. Peter's Catholic School, which provides affordable education to a predominantly Hispanic and working-class student body. 

“I think my teaching career was an ideal place to realize USF’s values of serving people who are marginalized,” says Graff. “I motivated kids to feel confident, and challenged them to step beyond our community and change their lives.” 

Today, he stays in touch with many of his former students, like Simon Chiu. Chiu immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong when he was 6, and is now president of Saint Francis High School in Mountain View. Graff was one of his inspirations for becoming an educator, he says.

“A lot of students in that school and in that neighborhood did not come from means — did not have a history of going to college,” says Chiu, who was the first in his family to attend college. “Bill worked hard to make sure that we didn’t see that as a barrier. It was clear that he really loved the kids he served.”

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