George Graboys was my hero, not because during his 23 years as chairman, chief executive and president he managed Citizens to the big leagues of Rhode Island banking, and not because as chairman of the Rhode Island Foundation and a founder of the Rhode Island Children’s Crusade he enhanced the lives of the underserved in our state.
George Graboys was my hero because he was a fierce competitor yet always a gentleman on and off the tennis court. And he was 18 years older than I.
George died last Saturday, December 16, at 85.
George and I played tennis with and against each other at Agawam Hunt in East Providence about a dozen years ago. We belonged to a Tuesday evening group comprising retired executives, working professionals, entrepreneurs and a sports writer. We played serious, but not cutthroat, tennis. We showed up, stretched for 30 seconds, played, showered and went on our way. If we socialized, it was while waiting to get on the court.
At first, I knew George as a feisty, wiry left hander with steady ground strokes, a decent serve and a suspect net game. Despite being the oldest player in the group, he would chase balls that others would concede with a “Good shot!”
I still remember driving a forehand, my strength, deep, really deep, to the corner of the ad court. “Winner,” I thought. Wrong. George ran the baseline, got to the ball, smacked a strong crosscourt forehand back to me, stopped and scrambled back into position to receive the next shot. I was so surprised I hit the ball into the net.
I shared George’s dislike for the net. He and I never met a volley we liked. When we were doubles teammates, we spent more time saying “Sorry!” for our flubbed volleys than we did saying “Great shot!” for our winners. Most of the time we just stayed on the baseline. There was, however, the night that George had everything. Serve. Return. Forehand. Backhand. And, yes, volley. As we left the court, we applauded him with “McEnroe, McEnroe!” Embarrassed, George just shook his head and smiled.
One night, my wife Anne, a banker for three decades, told me she had had lunch with George Graboys that day. He mentioned that he and I played tennis together. I said there was a George in our group. Little guy, older, great competitor, moves well, humble. “George Graboys,” she said.
Oh. I recognized his name, but now I had a face and a person to go with it. And I began to learn how great a man George Graboys was. He could have played tennis all day but instead spent his retirement leading the Rhode Island Foundation and then the University of Rhode Island Foundation. I learned of his deep commitment to those less fortunate than he; his involvement with the Rhode Island Children’s Crusade, an organization he helped found to assist kids to get to college; his fondness for high-school and college sports, even though he graduated from high-school in 1950, the year I was born.
George told me about his sons Ken, a businessman in Chicago, and Jim, a police commander in Alabama, and his daughter Angela, a rabbi. He was proud of his grandson Noah, a top cross-country runner in Illinois who ran for Bates College in Maine.
George talked of running marathons when Citizens sponsored the Ocean State. I remembered that he had played tennis in Newport when Citizens sponsored the Virginia Slims at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Our Agawam tennis days ended when my work schedule got too complicated, and George and his wife Lois began spending winters at Longboat Key in Florida. He played a lot of tennis there until various maladies slowed him down. Even doubles became a challenge.
Those of us who worked, ran, played tennis with or just knew George Graboys are fortunate to have benefited from his wisdom, sportsmanship and good humor. This son of Fall River and graduate of Tabor Academy, Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Law chose to spend his professional career and his retirement in Rhode Island. Our state is a better place as a result.