You would not be mistaken to consider Greg and Wya Graves as a “prototypical” College Station couple, at least as far as permanent residents are concerned.
Greg teaches at Texas A&M as a professor of practice in the College of Engineering. Wya is mother to their four daughters and an A&M graduate. She was also a cheerleader at Odessa Permian High School during the “Friday Night Lights” era made famous by the book, movie and television series of the same name.
The Graves have been married for nearly 30 years.
Wya’s father was an orthopedic surgeon. He was born in Indonesia to Dutch parents and as a child during World War II spent time in a Japanese concentration camp. Because of the suffering he saw there, he vowed he would pursue medicine...if he had the chance.
Greg’s father, Howard, grew up in the Texas panhandle. As a two-year-old, he nearly drowned trying to baptize a cat. After graduating from Amarillo High School, Howard Graves received an appointment to West Point.
Howard Graves became a Lieutenant General in the U.S. Army. He served as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and, in 1999, Graves moved to College Station to become the 11th chancellor of the Texas A&M University System.
Throughout a lifetime of service to his country, the faith Graves evidenced as a small boy remained strong. His life and commitment to his Lord and Savior set a sterling example for many.
Unfortunately, he was taken too soon.
Graves held the A&M System chancellor’s post for four years. He resigned as a result of the toll which a rare form of cancer had taken on him. Just three weeks later, on September 13, 2003, he died at the age of 64.
Upon Graves’ resignation from the chancellor post, Robert Gates, who had assumed the presidency of Texas A&M’s main campus under Graves watch, said, “If I look back on the last year, there is a cohesion in the System and a goodwill that I think did not exist before Howard came.”
In reflecting on Graves’ tenure as chancellor, Regent Phil Adams of Bryan says, “General Howard Graves was a strong leader and a wonderful human being. Following a distinguished military career, Howard grew to love Texas A&M: our culture, traditions and conservative values. Howard was a fine man and a fine leader.”
Howard Graves was an uncommon warrior. Upon graduation from West Point, he was named a Rhodes Scholar and spent his first three years of active military service in the successful pursuit of a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oxford University.
He would return twice to the famed British school for two graduate degrees, but he also spent time on the battlefield with an engineering battalion during the Vietnam War.
Those who loved and knew Graves best believe it was exposure there to an infamous tactical defoliant which may have triggered the cancer from which he ultimately died.
The U.S Department of Agriculture, working with the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the mid-1960s, developed the herbicidal mixture which came to be known as “Agent Orange.”
The compound was tested before deployment at the Texas A&M’s Research Annex, now called the RELLIS Campus.
Millions of people, including thousands of U.S. military personnel stationed in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, are believed to have suffered harmful affects from exposure to Agent Orange.
Graves held no remorse for the fateful hand he was dealt. Instead, he called upon his faith to bring peace, both to himself and his family. He kept friends informed of his health in a series of correspondence he sent out in the months before his death. In his last note he said:
“Two weeks ago, the doctors recommended that we terminate the chemotherapy regimen. We have tried just about every recipe and the lung tumors continue to grow, recently at a faster rate. So, for quality of life, they recommended that we discontinue the chemotherapy. We agree with the decision. The Lord has been so gracious during the past 2 1/2 years. I have suffered very little, and we now must continue to put this new phase in His hands as well. I feel great and continue to work a full schedule. Obviously, we need to think about a replacement for chancellor. I am talking with the regents about a search over the next months, but we are not in a crisis mode.”
Howard Graves possessed two characteristics which set him apart from others.
“He was brilliant,” Greg Graves says today of his father. “But, he was also a people person.
“Make no mistake, he was the head of our household when I was a kid, even when he was gone from home, and that was a lot,” Greg continues. “He once bought two pair of boxing gloves for Christmas and after we put them on, he proceeded to punch me in the nose.
“The blow stung, but there was a lesson to be learned from that. He was always teaching, training. Once I had children of my own, I had an even greater appreciation for the example he set for both my sister and me.”
Greg Graves ultimately received an appointment to West Point himself, following in his father’s footsteps. While a cadet, he was introduced to his future wife by close friends of his parents living in College Station.
Andy Seidel was pastor of Grace Bible Church in College Station and he and his wife, Gail, had become well-acquainted with Wya Geitz. They were also friends with Howard and Gracie Graves. Andy and Howard had gone to West Point together and formed a lasting bond there.
“Over Christmas one year, Mom told Gail that I was never going to settle down,” Greg remembers. “Gail told Mom she thought she might know the perfect girl for me. That was Wya.”
At the time, Howard Graves was working as commandant of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He soon moved to his position within the Pentagon, and then in 1991 took his post at West Point, serving there until his retirement from the military in 1996.
“Dad actually became a general while I was in ‘beast barracks’ at West Point,” Greg says. ‘Beast barracks’ is the period of orientation incoming students experience before entering their first year.at the Academy.
Being a general’s son made life “interesting” for Plebe Graves.
“‘You’re dad’s a general? What happened to YOU???’ I heard that a lot,” he laughs.
Greg graduated from West Point in 1988 and married Wya after her graduation from A&M in 1990.
For several years after his time at Oxford, Howard Graves taught at West Point. Greg chose to follow a similar course for his military career.
“When the Army agreed to send me to grad school, I wound up coming to Texas A&M. We spent two years here, from 1996 to 1998, during which I got my master’s degree in engineering. I then received a teaching assignment at West Point, and while Wya and I were there, Dad was offered the position to be chancellor of the A&M System.”
After his retirement from the Army, Howard Graves became a visiting professor for the Lyndon Johnson School of Public Service at the University of Texas in Austin. As Graves became known to state educational leaders and political figures, his profile rose. Given Graves military background, he seemed a perfect cultural fit for the Texas A&M System and was named to the post in August of 1999.
But not long after becoming chancellor, Graves was diagnosed with cancer. He served most of his term in the post battling the disease, making frequent trips to Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Among his closest confidants through the period was Pastor Andy Seidel.
Years before Howard and Gracie moved to College Station, Seidel had taken a position with the Dallas Theological Seminary. As executive director of the DTS Hendricks Center, Seidel led efforts to provide Christian-based leadership training for both seminary students and church ministers as well as business leaders.
After Howard Graves moved to Texas, Seidel was eager to have him come to Dallas and speak to students about his own leadership experiences. That proved a difficult chore, first because of the disease and second because of the demanding schedule Graves maintained as chancellor through his illness.
Ultimately, Seidel chose to make a trip to College Station and record a video interview with his long-time friend.
Despite his condition, Graves was pleased to help his friend.
Among Greg Graves most prized possessions is a DVD of Seidel’s interview with his father. In a postscript to the discussions about leadership, Graves spoke frankly with Seidel about his illness and his faith.
On the DVD, Seidel sets the tone for what Graves has to share about his Christian life by referencing the oxygen tank sitting just off camera. While Graves has an optimistic attitude, his physical appearance and raspy voice belie the ravages of both his disease and the chemotherapy he’d undergone.
Seidel asks, “At this point of your life, where are you now and what’s most important to you?”
Howard Graves responds:
“Well, obviously this is something that we’ve talked a lot about. Gracie and I have talked about it and I’ve talked a lot about it with you.
“I think there’s been a great sense of spiritual growth. Falling back on those fundamental elements of our faith, we are creations of God and we have been blessed by being able to know Him. Through guidance from parents, friends, and family, we have put our trust in Jesus as our Savior.
“When you go through something like this, you give up independence. You give up portability. You give up strength. As those things wain, it does become frustrating. But it would be, not just wrong, but illogical, given the amazing life that I’ve lived, not to give thanks for what we’ve been blessed with, not only a wonderful wife and children and grandchildren, but also career, friends, people to work with, and opportunities to do things that you could see people benefitted from.”
Before he died, Graves planned every detail of his memorial services, which took place both at Grace Bible Church, where he and his wife had become members, as well as at the Cadet Chapel at West Point. Howard Graves is buried at the West Point Cemetary alongside the likes of General William Hay, General Norman Schwarzkopf, General George Custer and Colonel Ed White.
Assigned by the U.S. Army back to College Station to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering at A&M, Greg Graves was able to spend the last three months of his father’s life in close proximity. His mother, Gracie, still lives in the Bryan/College Station area.
After his father’s death, Greg received his doctoral degree from Texas A&M, then was assigned a tour of duty in Iraq. Like his father, he spent time on active duty teaching at West Point. After retiring from the Army, Greg, Wya and their daughters returned to College Station in 2015.
To know Greg Graves is to know the kind of man his father was. Greg bears a strong resemblance to his father, both in looks and in his spiritual nature.
During his West Point eulogy for General Howard Graves, Greg said:
“My father trained me in God’s Word at home. He led Bible studies and Sunday school wherever we went. On numerous occasions he expressed his faith publicly in front of his superiors, peers and subordinates. Those things showed that his personal walk with God was real and important.
“(After) he was diagnosed with cancer, I saw Dad’s faith become more central to his life. He never asked, ‘Why me?’ He continually said, ‘God is good. We have so much to be thankful for.’
“Many of you prayed along with us that God would heal him. God did not heal him in this life. Dad leaves a legacy of servant-leadership and relying on God’s power. That is how he would want to be remembered.
“‘Let light shine out of darkness.’”