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A&M chief wages fight of his life

Chancellor, a retired general, goes head to head with cancer
04/07/2002
By SCOTT PARKS / The Dallas Morning News

Howard D. Graves has trouble sleeping. Often, late at night, his mind races through a series of brainstorms. He thinks the chemotherapy
has interrupted his normal sleep pattern.

Mr. Graves, chancellor of Texas A&M University System, has a lot to
think about. At age 62, he is waging a battle for his life.
 
The enemy is cancer.

"We are working like mad to find a solution," said Mr. Graves, a retired Army general. "But the first lesson I've learned is that I'm not in control. Even if I obey the doctors perfectly, it doesn't ensure the desired result."

Persistent abdominal pains sent Mr. Graves to the doctor in January 2001. The diagnosis was soft tissue sarcoma – a tumor above his left kidney.

Doctors at
M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston began an aggressive treatment program to shrink the tumor through chemotherapy and radiation.

In September, while preparing for surgery to remove the tumor, doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to his lungs.

The lungs are now the focus of his treatment, which has become a barrage of drugs to shrink tumors and kill stray cancer cells. Other powerful drugs are designed to keep his blood healthy enough to stand up under the strain.
 
"Another lesson I've learned is that we are not guaranteed that everything in life will be easy," Mr. Graves said. "My goal is that I want to succeed in this fight in a way that honors God."

These days, he sticks pretty close to home. Not much time for making speeches or for his favorite hobbies, fishing and snow skiing. Just time to marshal his energy for the next day of work or for the next fatiguing medical treatment.

Until 15 months ago, he appeared to be living a charmed life. As a devout Christian, he calls it "a blessed life."

Mr. Graves, a native Texan, graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1961. He continued his education as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England.

A 35-year career in the Army took him around the world. He rose to the rank of lieutenant general and became personal assistant to two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William Crowe and Gen. Colin Powell.

A recent resume says he "assisted in developing consensus among the Joint Chiefs on contentious issues." He worked on nuclear arms control, Arab-Israeli peace initiatives and German reunification.

Then, toward the end of his military career, he returned to his alma mater.

Mr. Graves, following in the footsteps of luminaries such as Robert E. Lee and Douglas MacArthur, served as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy from 1991 to 1996.

Don McGrath, who worked for Mr. Graves at West Point, describes him as "a tremendously brilliant, caring and considerate man and leader."

"He's the kind of guy who quickly grasps concepts and ideas and can put them into action in a very collegial way, considering everyone's opinions and thoughts," said Mr. McGrath, who now lives and works in Milwaukee.

In 1994, Mr. McGrath and Mr. Graves navigated their way through a sexual harassment scandal that erupted at West Point.

Football players had groped female cadets who were running a pre-game gauntlet. Mr. Graves began an immediate investigation, punished the offenders and notified reporters about the story rather than sweeping it under the rug and praying they didn't find out.

"He looked upon himself as the custodian of the reputation of the institution," Mr. McGrath said. "It epitomized his leadership, in my opinion."

The West Point incident would not be his last crisis.

Mr. Graves accepted the chancellor's job at Texas A&M in August 1999. Four months later, a stack of bonfire logs collapsed near campus and killed 12 people.
 
And, 14 months after that tragedy, Mr. Graves received his cancer diagnosis. In much the same way he handled the groping incident, he called reporters to a press conference to announce the news. Since then, the news has just gotten worse.

Gov. Rick Perry, a
Texas A&M alumnus, said Wednesday that he and his family often think of Mr. Graves.

"Howard's battle with cancer continues to reflect the true Aggie spirit of strength, courage and determination," Mr. Perry said. "He is a man of tremendous vision and great character."

Today, Mr. Graves says he leans on his wife, Gracie, who is a cancer survivor. He calls her "a tower of strength."

It's been difficult, he said, for a self-reliant person to ask people for help.

"I've had to realize that people are honest in their desire to help you and that it's important to be able to ask for it," he said.

With the support of his staff, he has continued his work as chancellor. He and his board of regents have discussed "what continuing on the job meant and what performance meant" to
Texas A&M.

"I put in a full day on most days," he said.

Friends say Mr. Graves has always sought solace in his church. But they say cancer has brought a new dimension to his faith.

Mr. Graves says he finds meaning in sharing the story of his struggle with others in crisis.

"You ask yourself what kind of purpose can be served by this," he said. "One answer is that there have been opportunities to share my stories with others in similar circumstances."

The Rev. Dwight Edwards, Mr. Graves' pastor at the nondenominational Grace Bible Church, says a health crisis either drives someone closer to or further away from God.

"Howard wants to use this time to draw closer to God," Mr. Edwards said. "You would never know the prestige and credentials he carries. In a world where you see so much pretense, it's wonderful to run into someone so genuine and humble."

E-mail sparks@dallasnews.com