Bob Graham didn’t come to Jackson to sell real estate.
By his own account in a 1997 interview he “sort of backed into the business.”
But when he died last week at age 84, Graham had long since become one of the biggest names in one of the biggest resort real estate markets in the country.
Graham was renowned for knowing his business, for working hard but fair, for taking on new agents and teaching them what they needed to know.
“We were very close friends but we were also intense competitors,” said Bland Hoke, one of the few Jackson Realtors who was in the business when Graham started close to a half century ago. “We really went at it for years.”
Graham was, Hoke said, a man who “contributed a lot to Jackson over the years” in his business and in good causes in the community.
Longtime friend and fellow Realtor Mike Wardell called Graham “a giant of the real estate business” in Jackson.
Julie Faupel, an owner of Jackson Hole Real Estate Associates, the local Christie’s International Real Estate affiliate and partner with Graham in the Graham Faupel Mendenhall and Associates group, recalled that Graham introduced her and her husband, Matt, to the Jackson market.
“I first met him 18 years ago when we moved to Jackson,” she said. “He stewarded us and supported us ... he was an incredible community cornerstone.”
Graham arrived in Jackson, as many do, with skiing on his mind. He came in 1970, intending to take a year or so off after 12 years as a salesman in Boston. He found a job managing Crystal Springs Lodge in Teton Village, taking over from Wardell, who was holding the job just for the winter.
Wardell said he was “one of the first people in Jackson to meet Bob ... an instant friendship” that lasted five decades.
Graham realized that he wanted to stay and that property management would make steady work. When he learned that in Wyoming you needed a real estate license to be a property manager, he got his license.
Once he had the license in hand, actual sales seemed natural, despite his lack of experience or even initial interest in real estate.
“I never thought about real estate” before then, he said in 1997. “I didn’t know anything about it. I never even owned a piece of property.”
What helped him through his start, Graham said, was that previous sales work.
“I’ve been a peddler for most of my adult life, so it was natural for me to start selling real estate,” he said. “And I was fortunate to start in the business at a very opportune time.”
“Peddler” is an old-style word, Wardell said, and one that many today think has a disreputable sound. But he said Graham — “the consummate salesman” — was “in no way ashamed of that word.”
Back then Jackson Hole was on the verge of its first boom, though real estate sales in the area weren’t the huge part in the local economy that it has become. Realtors operated in small groups, independent businesses without the backing of international giants like Christie’s and Sotheby’s International Realty or Century 21. The typical realty shop was a couple of people who worked by talking to each other before there was a multiple listing service or a corporate daddy to back them.
When Hoke first met Graham in the mid-1970s Graham had founded Jackson Hole Real Estate Associates, first called Underground Realty for its basement location in the Village. The business was one of those standalones with no connection to any larger business.
“Bob had two or three agents with him, and I was working by myself,” Hoke said.
“It was before the MLS, but things were small enough that if someone came in and wanted to buy something and I didn’t have it, I’d call other brokers and say ‘Do you have anything like this?’ It was all word of mouth ... pretty rudimentary.”
Graham and Hoke talked to colleagues and put together the Teton Board of Realtors. A couple of years later they created the MLS, initially photocopying the listings and handing them around.
It was before Jackson became a billionaire second-home mecca, before the boom of hotel construction, before a middle-class house in town or Rafter J could cost a million or more.
“We sold condos at the Racquet Club and at the Village we sold lots,” Hoke said. “There was plenty to sell, but there hadn’t been that big influx of buyers — we weren’t that popular.”
Graham’s years included not only huge expansion in the Jackson market but also some very low lows. He and his friends and competitors weathered the early 1980s oil crisis and inflation slump and rode the Reagan recovery that followed. But then they had to face the dot-com crash of 1999 and the Great Recession of 2008.
Over the years Graham worked with many other agents who played a role in early expansion of the local realty business. Among them were Pete Karns, Carolynn Hawtin, Nancy Martino, Jeanie Staehr and Karen Terra. With Terra the relationship went beyond real estate — the couple married and raised four children in Jackson.
Graham and Terra also worked together outside business and family: They were longtime supporters of the Grand Teton Music Festival, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, St. John’s Health and other community groups.
Graham was also important to many people in a much more personal way: A drinker who decided that alcohol was destroying him, he stopped, and he supported others doing the same, including Wardell.
“Bob was instrumental in helping a lot of people in this valley begin recovering from addiction,” Wardell said.
Graham prided himself on “being able to spot talent” and nurture it, Faupel said.
“Bob tutored a lot of people in his career,” she said. “I think anybody in the business who is north of 35, Bob had some impact on them ... Bob was a living embodiment that you could be a great competitor but morally kind, ethically aboveboard and an incredible professional.”
Though in declining health in the past year, Graham still took an interest in the world of Jackson real estate and offered his views, Faupel said.
“I think the second to last conversation I had with him was almost entirely about real estate,” she said. “And he always had some sort of genius he would impart.”
“He loved people and he loved the real estate business,” Wardell said. “He was passionate.”
Graham’s oversize impact came despite of the way he arrived in Jackson, like so many, without a real plan.
As he once told The Jackson Hole News: “When I moved here I figured I had nothing to lose if I left here in a year or two, but once I had been here a short time I just simply couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else.”