Beryl McGraw did the seemingly impossible: Her amazing 89-year life of service allowed her to cast a long shadow despite standing next to the biggest man to ever walk the Colorado State University campus.
To some, McGraw – everyone knew her as Brownie – was the wife of Thurman “Fum” McGraw, the giant of a man who became CSU’s first football All-American, NFL star and, eventually, athletic director at his beloved alma mater. But to those paying attention, Brownie McGraw – who died earlier this week following a long illness – was a massive force on her own: an award-winning educator, tireless volunteer, advocate for youth and community visionary.
She was the first woman to become a principal in secondary education in the Poudre School District and was so respected following her long career in teaching and administration that a Fort Collins elementary school was named in her honor.
“Brownie was a pretty remarkable woman,” said Kristi Bohlender, executive director of CSU’s Alumni Association and a longtime friend. “When you look back at all she accomplished in her life, she was a true trailblazer and a force for good in our community. She had intense loyalty to her friends, Fort Collins and CSU.”
Finding her soulmate at CSU
McGraw, one of a long line of accomplished graduates of Denver’s East High School, arrived in the late 1940s at what was then Colorado A&M, where she met Fum, the massive three-sport (football, wrestling, track and field) All-American who came to campus after serving in World War II. The city girl and country boy – Fum grew up in tiny Paonia on Colorado’s Western Slope – hit it off and were married in 1950.
McGraw followed her husband to Detroit, where he enjoyed NFL stardom. Fum later became a coach, and the family eventually landed back in Fort Collins, where they raised their three children. Brownie returned to CSU to complete her degree in social science and earned a teaching certificate, launching a long career in education that included stops at Wellington and Blevins junior high schools before she capped her career with stints as principal at Rocky Mountain High School and Lincoln Junior High School.
“Mom loved to teach, and as kids we were always going to one school event or another, even though none of us ever had her as a teacher,” said Dave McGraw, her son. “When Dad became athletic director (at CSU) it seemed like he was always speaking at some event, and Mom was always at some school event, but they always found time for family. It was a great way to grow up.”
A force to be reckoned with
Interestingly, all of the McGraw children – Dave, Mike and Debbie – went against family tradition and attended the University of Wyoming. Dave and Mike played football for the Rams’ Border War rivals, and Debbie was a cheerleader. Dave remembered watching a CSU-Wyoming game from the athletic director’s box at Hughes Stadium.
Both teams scored in the final minute, with the Rams scoring on the final play to win on Steve Fairchild’s touchdown pass to Mike Camp. After the game, some CSU fans and a Wyoming fan – a former teammate of the McGraw boys – got into a shoving match in the stands, just below the press box.
“We were going to break it up when Mom yelled out, ‘If you boys embarrass your father there’s going to be trouble!’” Mike recalled, giggling. “Let me tell you, that ended it right there. It was funny how people always used to be afraid of Dad because he was so big but we all knew it was Mom who you didn’t want to anger.
“That was the last time my brother and I were invited to watch a CSU-Wyoming game at Hughes.”
Twice honored by Alumni Association
In addition to her service to PSD, McGraw did whatever she could to boost her beloved Rams. She was given the Charles A. Lory Service Award by the CSU Alumni Association in 2002 for her years of service to the university and the community, and she was the 2014 Honor Alumna for the College of Health and Human Sciences, from which she earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in education.
And, of course, she was always a huge supporter of CSU athletics. Legendary football coach Sonny Lubick, who first arrived in Fort Collins as an assistant coach in the early 1980s, said he was immediately impressed by the welcoming nature of Fum and Brownie.
“They invited the entire football staff to their home for dinner, and Brownie was an amazing hostess,” Lubick said. “Brownie was just such a genuine person who cared for everyone she met. Along with Jim and Nadine Henry (CSU’s Alumni of the Century), Fum and Brownie really were the first couple of CSU. I never knew anyone who loved the university more.”
Tireless community volunteer
She was also a proud supporter of women’s sports and could often be found at Moby Arena cheering for the CSU volleyball and basketball teams.
After Fum died in 2000, Brownie missed him terribly but never slowed down. She spent 20 years working in the Larimer County District Attorney’s Office as a juvenile specialist, and at one time was on at least nine different community boards at the same time.
“And she was not just putting in her time,” Bohlender said. “If she was on a board she was there to work, and she expected everyone else to work, too. No one wanted to disappoint Brownie.”
One of her proudest achievements was serving as the driving force behind Inspiration Playground, the innovative play area universally accessible to all children, including those with special needs. It is located at Spring Canyon Community Park in west Fort Collins and was the first playground of its kind in Colorado.
Her son, Dave, said his mother had rallied recently, more than 5 years after suffering a stroke, and she was able to say goodbye to all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“All she wanted was for Dad to come riding up on his horse and take her with him,” he said.
Brownie is survived by her three children, Dave McGraw (Patti) of Wellington, Colorado; Mike McGraw of Hanna, Wyoming; and Debbie Hansen (Carl) of Livermore, Colorado; grandchildren Sean McGraw (Emily), Tara McGraw, Shane McGraw, Conor McGraw, Lisa Hansen and Katie Hansen; and two great-grandchildren, Eli and Acey McGraw as well as several nieces and nephews.
The McGraw legacy at CSU was continued by Katie Hansen, an All-American discus thrower for the Rams like her grandfather, and Lisa Hansen, associate director of engagement for the CSU Alumni Association.
Due to current circumstances and restrictions, there will not be a Celebration of Life service for Brownie. The family asked that donations be made to Thurman F. “Fum” and Beryl B. “Brownie” McGraw Memorial Scholarship at Colorado State University Athletics; UCHealth Northern Colorado Foundation; or Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, in care of Bohlender Funeral Chapel.