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Accomplished Solana Beach deacon celebrates 100th birthday

The man who helped found several North County agencies and programs for the needy decades ago has been able to see his work come to life and evolve. After all, reaching your 100th birthday would allow such opportunities.

Deacon Al Graff
Deacon Al Graff Courtesy

Deacon Al Graff, of St. James and St. Leo Catholic Community in Solana Beach, celebrated his centenarian birthday Jan. 23 with 250 guests from the church and the organizations he was instrumental in.

Since May 1983 — when he became an ordained deacon to serve the poor — Graff has been a board member or founding party of Esperanza International in Tijuana, San Diego County's Community Housing Works, St. James and St. Leo Medical and Dental Program in Solana Beach, the Community Resource Center in Encinitas, the Mexican American Educational Guidance Association (MAEGA), and the Head Start facility for underprivileged children in Solana Beach.

"It's been fun being on the organizations," Graff said in a recent interview at his La Jolla home. "You can contribute and you can be active in those organizations. The key is, the end results of all five of these organizations is to help the poor. If you have a little money, you should spend time helping those that don't have money."

All that work, however, was not something Graff needed to do. One month prior to becoming a deacon — a role that precedes the ranks of priest and bishop — he had retired from a career with General Atomics.

Despite the opportunity to relax, Graff decided to keep working. The founding priest of St. James asked him to become a deacon, following about a decade of volunteer work before the church had even opened.

Deacons assist the priests and are delegated to serve specific parts of the community. They are ordained in the Catholic Church and can baptize, preside in marriages and preach on Sundays at the altar. Unlike priests and bishops, deacons can also be married, as Graff was for 63 years to his wife, Marianne.

Deacon Peter Hodsdon, who helped facilitate the interview with Graff, said instead of deacons being assigned a focus, "it chooses you."

Graff's calling was serving the needy.

Some noteworthy achievements throughout his career as a deacon include:

  • Co-founding Esperanza International in Tijuana in 1985. He helped build a medical and dental clinic and a home for the nuns. He also designed and built concrete interlocking block houses. To date, more than 1,000 small homes have been built.
  • Co-founding Community Housing Works in 1988. The organization continues to offer thousands of low-income apartments throughout San Diego County. Graff was also instrumental in the hiring of Sue Reynolds, the organization's president and CEO.
  • Co-founding the St. James and St. Leo Medical and Dental program in 1991.
  • Board member of the Community Resource Center in Encinitas from 1990 to 2005. The organization offers various assistance for needy people throughout North County. While on the board, Graff helped build a two-story building to house mothers and children, start a food initiative and begin the organization's Christmas program.
  • Current board member of MAEGA, which offers college scholarships for area Latino students, since 1993. About 60 scholarships have been given annually, and about 20 to 30 scholarship renewals are given to the neediest students.
  • Installing a Head Start teaching facility at St. Leo in the early 2000s.

When asked what the secret was to reach 100 years — and not suffering from a major health incident (a stroke) until he was 96 — Graff said the answer was to never retire.

"I think when you retire, you just kind of go to sleep," he said.

Hodsdon said in diaconate work, deacons will often "plant seeds," but they may not live long enough to see the results or projects may fail.

"In his case, [the seeds] have grown like you wouldn't believe," Hodsdon said. "What he's getting to see is the harvest, which is unusual. Most people don't see a harvest. You plant and plant and plant and think you did the best you could. He's lived enough to actually see it happen, which is a great privilege. That's the grace he has received through his old age — to see things he started 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago blossoming now."

And now, Graff, who still works as a deacon part-time, is thinking about the future and how he can continue to serve his community once he's gone.

On his 100th birthday, Graff, who received recent recognition from Pope Francis, announced the Deacon Al Graff Scholarship, which would provide funds for children to attend St. James Academy. Tuition at the school costs about $8.600, Hodsdon noted.

At his recent birthday party, guests raised more than $35,000 for the "needs-based" scholarship. Graff also intends to leave a part of his will to the program.

"The dais and the schools say we have to keep these schools in operation," Graff said. "We do whatever we have to do to make sure they're operating well."

Interested applicants must meet certain criteria, including being active and registered in the St. James-St. Leo Parish. For more information about the scholarship, call 858-755-2545 or 858-755-1777.

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