Elizabeth Graham: Time Well Spent

 In News

“Two hours of your day is a lot of time!”

There are two kinds of people who might make a statement such as this one. The habitually lazy and the chronically busy. It takes very little time to determine into which of those categories Elizabeth Graham fits. She is a person who understands the value of time.

I’m with Sheila Bauer, the CEO of The Dementia Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County. We are meeting with Elizabeth at her house in Ottawa West, a lovely and expansive residence that looks over the Ottawa River. She is in the midst of some work when we enter, so her assistant Jill takes our coats and welcomes us while Elizabeth finishes up. She’s working on the expansion of Ashley Nuco (Ashley HomeStore) into Ottawa.

She’s still involved with the Tony Graham Automotive Group, the business she built with her husband Tony. The company is now being run by her daughter, and Elizabeth says “I still go in, but mostly now I just point at things”. One gets the sense, however, that when Elizabeth Graham points at something a whole lot happens as a result.

Elizabeth, the oldest of nine children, has been working since she was twelve years old and shows no sign of stopping now. Her Ottawa roots run deep (her grandfather was the Sheriff of Rockcliffe, back when Rockcliffe was its own town and we still had sheriffs). She and Tony both worked at Simpsons-Sears in Carlingwood before they were married. They shared an entrepreneurial spirit as a couple that led them from a Sunoco gas station on Baseline, where the Summerhays Grill now stands, to the Tony Graham empire that is so well known in Ottawa today.

Above her mantle is a Robert Bateman painting of a lone eagle flying through a storm. It’s a painting that was given to Tony by his staff upon his retirement. It’s meant to represent an entrepreneur, undertaking a solo journey through the most difficult of circumstances to reach a goal. It isn’t entirely accurate, in that his journey was anything but solo and neither was Elizabeth’s. They always had each other.

Now Elizabeth forges on without her late husband, but never completely alone. She is partnering with her brother Robert on the Ashley Nuco expansion. She works with her daughter Maureen to run the Tony Graham Automotive Group. She spends her time growing businesses, making deals, and being a philanthropist. She has just today arranged for Ashley HomeStore to sponsor the Jewel Ladies’ Getaway Weekend event.

Elizabeth is determined not just to make Ashley a success in Ottawa, she is also enamoured with their products the way Tony had once been with a Toyota he saw pull into his gas station. She believes firmly that their business model and the furniture they sell will create a real foothold in Ottawa, and will be a huge success even with some hiccups along the way. And because she also believes that companies should have a social conscience, she has made Ashley HomeStore the “Here To Help” sponsor of the Walk For Dementia.

Tony Graham Automotive Group is the title sponsor of the Walk For Dementia, because Elizabeth is efficient with her money. She knows where to donate to do the most good with the exact right amount. She knows about The Dementia Society because Tony Graham lived with dementia for the last ten years of his life. And because Elizabeth lived with Tony for those ten years, she knows how devastating dementia can be and the toll it takes not just on the person who exhibits the symptoms but on their family.

While we sit in her living room, beneath the eagle in the storm, Elizabeth asks Sheila all about the work The Dementia Society does although she already has a pretty firm grasp on our programs and mandate, having been a caregiver herself. There is a lively discussion about Sheila’s time as a support worker, and a conversation about the incredibly brilliant people Elizabeth has known who have had their minds “stolen” by dementia.

When Sheila explains that her initial participation with The Dementia Society involved only two hours per day, that’s when she receives a bit of an admonishment. There is no such thing as ‘only’ two hours. Two hours spent doing one thing is two hours not spent doing something else, and that time is valuable!

In our time with Elizabeth, we learned about her life with Tony, her dedication to him through everything, and her business philosophy. We encountered a warm and caring grandmother, an efficient and driven businesswoman, a melancholy grieving widow, and a philanthropist with an enormous heart. It was a splendid use of two hours.

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