Anything But Typical - By Charlie Aker

(Originally published in the August 7, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)   

“Charlie, I am off to deepest, darkest Africa.”

Graham J. Beck was amused how people viewed his native South Africa, and he delivered that line when one of his visits to Gainesway was about to end. A force of nature was about to change continents. It is nearly impossible to fathom that line won’t be delivered again.

It was a struggle to pass the word of his death July 27. Between the phone calls, someone came in and pointed out a story in the South African press that quoted his longtime assistant Lynette Barnard: “Anything but a typical boss, generous to a fault, he could be naughty as hell. Full of life and a man who lived life to the full.”

I e-mailed her immediately to let her know that it could not be said any better. I then made it a point to include a story about him with each of the remaining calls; it made the task a bit more bearable.

In the 21 years we had come to know him, we learned nobody enjoyed a laugh more than Mr. Beck, even if it came at his own expense.

While in the midst of an impromptu meeting in my office several years ago with two or three managers present, Mr. Beck was making a point about how certain costs were just like throwing money away. To illustrate, he leaned forward, reached in his pants pocket, and dropped several dollars on the floor. At the same time, his brand new pair of eyeglasses fell out of his shirt pocket (unbeknownst to him) and landed right beside the cash. To his surprise, the grinding into the ground of the cash with his shoe was accompanied by a loud crunching noise. As he sat back down in front of a completely stunned audience, tears filled his eyes as he began laughing uncontrollably. “I have completely lost my train of thought, but looking around I think I made my point!”

Yes sir, you always did.

When Mr. Beck spoke, you listened. No class in college ever provided the knowledge that spending an afternoon with him did. Every issue­—business, politics, or life in general—came with his world view. Other than the occasional telephone number, he never wrote anything down. Give him a fact or a figure and it was permanently implanted in the database in his head.

He loved seeing someone do a good deed. He was always interested in the personal side of his employees’ lives. Before we ever talked business on the phone, he inquired about wives, children, and any other issues that he knew were going on with us outside of the farm. He had a way of making everyone feel personally invested in the operation.

Mr. Beck was not one to leave unfinished business. With his friends and contemporaries having passed before him—William T. Young, John Gaines, William A. Marquard, and John A. Bell—the business of the farm was put into his son Antony’s hands several years ago. Along with his wife, Rhona, Mr. Beck instilled the idea of stewardship of the land not only in Antony and his family but in every person who works on the farm. I know our people take pride in seeing that this legacy that has been created will be carried on.

I could never do justice in telling the story of someone like Graham Beck in the few paragraphs allotted here. It is not my intention even to try. Just know that out Paris Pike we have lost a husband, father, grandfather, friend, boss, philanthropist, and lover of life that the world rarely gets to encounter. We’re going to miss him.

Charlie Aker is vice president of Gainesway Farm. He has worked there for 21 years. 

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