Jerry Graham, an ex-convict who shared his story of redemption as an author, prison minister and founder of a Sacramento farm for troubled youngsters, died June 21 of pneumonia, his family said. He was 81.
Before he walked with Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and business leaders as a noted prison evangelist, Mr. Graham nearly faced life behind bars as a “three-strikes” felon. He turned to crime at age 14 after running away from home in Sacramento and spent a total of 18 years locked up for narcotics and armed robbery convictions.
On a gray winter day in 1971, he was in a cell in Ohio with contraband drugs when he spotted his wife across the street through a crack in the jailhouse wall. Despairing that no one else her cared about him, he called out for help.
“He said, ‘God, if you’re real, you need to show me what to do,’ ” his son Matt said. “He said God spoke to him and said, ‘Throw away your dope.’
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“He said, ‘I threw the dope in the cell toilet, pushed the button and watched it flush away,’ ” his son said. “He said, ‘Panic washed over me – then it washed away.’ ”
As a born-again Christian, Mr. Graham turned his life around and committed himself to helping others behind bars – or headed there. Along with sports legends Rafer Johnson and Roger Staubach, he traveled widely and spoke to inmates about his conversion as a volunteer with International Prison Ministry, Match-2 Prison Ministries and Bill Glass Champions for Life.
In addition, he gave away copies of his autobiography, “Where Flies Don’t Land” – a reference to solitary confinement – to prisoners who saw their own experiences in his story.
“He was real down-to-earth – an ex-con and a man’s man who understood what they were going through – and he just loved the Lord,” said Mae Rehfus of International Prison Ministry. “They listened to him. So many people wrote to say, ‘Jerry’s story touched my heart.’ ”
In 1979, Mr. Graham founded His Farm, a Christian group home for wayward boys on 40 acres along Eagles Nest Road in Sacramento. Entertainers Steve Allen and Art Linkletter hosted benefits for the program, which Mr. Graham ran for more than 20 years with support from local churches, religious groups and businesses.
“He felt that most people who get in trouble did it because they didn’t have anyone who cared for them,” his brother Nick Cullincini said. “He wanted to show these kids that somebody did care.”
Born Jan. 14, 1933, in New York, Jerry Edward Graham was abandoned by his father at an early age. He moved with his mother, Evelyn, to Sacramento after her marriage to Fred Cullincini, who owned popular restaurants and taverns for more than 50 years.
He dropped out of Sacramento High School and joined the Army at age 16. He left the military after about a year and drifted as a drug addict and habitual criminal before turning his life over to Jesus. He married his wife, Sandi, raised a family and devoted himself to helping people transform their lives through commitment, hard work and prayer.
His story inspired people in all walks of life. He was honored for his service by the Salvation Army and received the Paul Harris Fellow award from Sacramento Rotary. For a role in the film “Runaway Train,” actor Jon Voight moved in with Mr. Graham and his family for two months in Foothill Farms and visited prisons with him to learn how to talk and act like a criminal.
“He had such an impact on people – not just for his ministry, but just because of the person he was,” his daughter Nicole Mack said. “All of our friends on the swim team and in baseball just knew him as our dad. He loved being with us and with his grandkids, and he had all these expressions that he always used. He always said, ‘I’m blessed by the best.’ ”
Mr. Graham, who was divorced, was predeceased by another daughter, Cindy Jones. In addition to his two children and brother Nick, he is survived by another brother, Fred Cullincini; two sisters, Dorothy Schumaker and Anne Cullincini; six grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
A viewing is set from noon to 6 p.m. Monday at W.F. Gormley & Sons, 2015 Capitol Ave., Sacramento. A memorial and reception are set for 11 a.m. July 1 at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, 11427 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Champions for Life, 1101 S. Cedar Ridge Drive, Duncanville, TX 75137, http://billglass.org/; or Jordan Crossing Ministries, P.O. Box 869, Palermo, CA 95968, http://jordancrossingministries.org/.