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Former LDS bishop who died unexpectedly honored by politicians, friends, ward members

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The holiday film “It’s a Wonderful Life” tells the story of George Bailey, an ordinary man whose everyday actions changed the lives of others. When Bailey finds himself in a difficult situation, his friends come to his aid, just as he had come to theirs so many times before.

When you hear Nate Graham’s friends describe his legacy of service, it is difficult not to think of George Bailey.

Graham, senior manager of global and government relations at Procter & Gamble, was in China last week on business when he began to feel sick and excused himself from a meeting. About a day later, on Dec. 10, he was found unconscious in his hotel room and taken to a hospital, where he died just hours later. It has since been discovered that the cause of his death was sepsis, a response to an unknown infection.

In the week that has passed since Graham’s death, people from around the world have paid tribute to their colleague, friend and former ecclesiastical leader. One of Graham's friends, Sheldon Gilbert, created a YouCaring campaign, and over 700 supporters have donated more than $100,000, providing financial relief for Graham’s widow, Melanie, and her four sons, who range from 2 months to 6 years old.

Much like the friends of George Bailey, these people have come to the aid of Graham’s family to show gratitude for the many times Graham helped them.

Graham, a 37-year-old Utah native who was living in Washington, D.C., was released as a bishop of the Crystal City Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just six weeks ago. Graham served as bishop for 4 1/2 years in an area that attracts people for a variety of reasons, such as government jobs and academic pursuits. Due to the transient nature of the area, Gilbert estimates that 1,000 people moved into the ward (with probably just as many moving out) during Graham’s service as bishop.

“For me, a hallmark of Nate and his leadership as bishop of the Crystal City Ward was his overwhelming inclusiveness,” said Brandon Boey, who served with Graham in the bishopric and now lives in Maine. “He made it a point to emphasize the message in his meetings that this is a church for all people. He had a gift for inspiring others to think about how to make others feel welcome and at home.”

Whether he was helping three blind youths enjoy everything about the ward's Young Men program, including a trip to a shooting range, or playing a role in the conversion of new ward members, Graham made sure everyone felt welcomed.

Maybe that is why in a ward that Boey calls “ethnically, politically and in every other sense” diverse, there is unity. The ward was united by a love for God, but they were also united by a love for Graham.

Graham was also admired by colleagues. He worked as a legislative assistant for former Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett from 2003-2009. On Wednesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, paid tribute to Graham in a speech on the Senate floor.

“Nate’s trademark humility endeared him to all,” Hatch said. “He never thought himself above anyone else and was always helpful and kind to everyone.”

During his speech, Hatch shared a statement from Bennett, who is battling cancer.

"Nate Graham was a valued and much-loved member of my staff who was on track for great success in life, both professionally and with his beautiful family," Bennett said. "This is a terrible tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. We will miss him terribly."

Hatch added that in his ecclesiastical service, Graham “built a reputation for fostering a community of love and friendship.”

Graham's former ward members can attest to this. Children in the Crystal City Ward called Graham “Bishop Graham Cracker” and always received a treat from his office drawer. Mogi Baatar, a Mongolian immigrant who is culturally unaccustomed to hugging, said she will remember Graham as “a great hugger.”

Baatar immigrated to the United States in 1999. She and her husband were active members of the church, but following a difficult divorce, she stopped attending church — until Nate Graham reached out to her.

“(The divorce) really negatively impacted my view of the church," Baatar said. "When I met Nate … a great husband and a wonderful man in the church, and it really completely changed my view. … It restored my faith.”

Mauri Earl, a former member of the Crystal City Ward who works for the LDS Church's Office of International and Government Affairs, remembers a priesthood blessing Graham gave her after she moved out of his ward. Earl had just assumed legal guardianship of her niece, and her new bishop and Graham gave her and her niece priesthood blessings. Earl remembers that in her blessing, Graham spoke of her friends rallying around her, and that is exactly what happened.

“I just love looking back because it was part of the Graham mantra," Earl said. "The extra assistance provided by heaven was part of his and Melanie’s way of life and thought process, to include the divine help that can be given as part of the ministry, and I feel like that is such an action of faith, and that is how he governed in his ministry as bishop.”

Krysta Crane was also no longer a member of the Crystal City Ward when her time of need came. Crane and her family were on vacation in Costa Rica when their 5-year-old son, Boston, died in a swimming pool accident. Crane remembers receiving packages from Graham and his congregation. She said this was Graham’s way of “still watching over his flock.”

Crane believes that the flood of donations the YouCaring campaign has received is a reflection of the love Graham showed throughout his life.

“I don’t think people would go out of their way as much if it were for somebody that hadn’t touched them in the way that Nate touches people,” Crane said. “It’s just the way that he looks at you and you feel like he sees you, and you just feel like he knows who you are in a way that you’re able to connect in that. … He looked at you with love and concern, and I often thought that’s how Heavenly Father sees his children.”

Keith A. Davey, Graham's stake president in the Mount Vernon Virginia Stake, also commented on Graham's ability to connect with many individuals.

“Nate reflected an ideal mix of global policy expertise and local one-on-one caring, of organizational and ecclesiastical management, and family love and fun, of deep spirituality and engaging sense of humor,” Davey said. "His reach to so many people in so many locations in so many walks of life will ensure this, his legacy, his tremendously positive influence on individuals, families, organizations and even governments, will be long-lasting.”

In what Gilbert calls “one of those wonderful coincidences of life,” one of Graham's former counselors in the bishopric, Mason Chenn, was in the same city in China for a completely unrelated reason and was by Graham’s side when he died. Chenn also helped Graham’s wife, Melanie, as they worked with the consulate in China to bring Graham’s body back to the United States. A funeral will be held Dec. 19 in Layton.

While Graham’s sons are still young and their memories of their father may be limited, Gilbert said that because of his service as a bishop, they will find their father’s legacy living on in the lives of people he helped.

“You have these people from across the globe that come in, and he touched their lives, and then they head back out all over the globe," Gilbert said. "And as these four boys grow up, … anywhere they go throughout the world, they’re going to run into people who knew their dad, who were touched by their dad.”

Email: mjones@deseretdigital.com