Disbelief and sadness over the loss of Tim “Big Dog” Graham painted the faces of patrons last week at the Wellington Party Center.
Graham, dubbed “Mr. Wellington,” died Dec. 12 at age 63 at University Hospitals in Cleveland due to complications from diabetes.
“This is just a huge shock,” said Debbie Lance as she worked behind the bar. “He was just huge in this town and everyone loved him. We were so close. We went to Florida together every year.”
“Timmy was like my second father,” said Angie Lance. “I started working for him 15 years ago at the old party center. He would give you the shirt off his back. You knew if you were having a bad day, you could show up at the party center and be welcomed by his bright blue eyes and beautiful smile.”
Graham owned the party center, which has announced its closing until further notice. His other two businesses, Big Dog Catering and Dog Tracks Diner, will stay in operation, employees said.
“If you walked through this door and you needed help, that man would help you,” said Greg Best while sitting at the bar. “I don’t care what organization you belong to, he gave just to help out. That made him feel good. There’s no way this town would be able to handle a funeral for that man because the number of people that would show up would be overwhelming.”
Graham was a regular donor to the Wellington police and fire departments, VFW Post 6941, Eagles Aerie 2051, and served as master of ceremonies for the village’s Fourth of July fireworks as well as for the Wellington Chamber of Commerce’s reverse raffle.
“Big Dog was one of the top supporters of our Safety Town program,” said Lt. Jeff Shelton. “He always donated the pop to us. My daughter was FFA president last year at the high school and he dropped his prices to almost half when he catered the FFA banquet.”
“Not just police, but for any fundraisers around town, he would always lower his prices to help the fundraiser make money,” said police chief Tim Barfield. “This guy was loved by everyone.”
Assistant fire chief Bill Brown told a story of Graham passing out drinks to firefighters as they worked to put out a blaze across from the party center.
“We used his parking lot as an area to set up different operations,” Brown said. “He was out there in the early morning hours bringing us coffee and stuff like that. There was a picture on our Facebook page of him wearing the chief’s hat and coat and passing out orders. He was just a super nice guy.”
After helping to lead the 1971 Elyria Pioneers football team to a 10-1 record, Graham received a full scholarship to Bowling Green University. A knee injury there, however, ended his playing days. He went on to work for Budweiser for 20 years following that.
“He caught me stealing candy when I was about 10 years old,” said friend Ryan Swope. “Instead of calling the cops on me he made me work it off. I had to take the trash out for about a week. I loved him for that one.”
More friends spoke of selfless deeds undertaken by Graham through his catering days.
“It could be Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, baseball, anything. He was ready to give,” said Bill Mondak. “Businesses are always looking to solicit funds for this cause or that cause. I don’t think Tim ever once turned anyone away. I had him go to one of my business locations one time. Before you know it, he’s going down to Mt. Vernon. He’s going over to Trumbull County, two miles from the Pennsylvania line. That’s how good his food is. About seven of my customers were ready to call Tim for catering whenever they had meetings or seminars.”
Janette Montoney said Graham raised money for her family after her son, Doug Montoney, was in a serious car crash.
“It was about 20 years ago,” she said. “He threw a benefit and raised money for our doctor bills. We’ve been very thankful to him for our recovery process.”
Al Leiby of the Spirit of ‘76 Museum painted a picture of Graham as an avid practical joker who was not afraid to ruffle feathers.
“He was one of the most generous guys in Wellington in decades,” he said. “All you had to do was ask and he was there. He had the ability to joke or make fun of anyone or anything and get away with it. When my younger brother Danny died, Tim catered the reception afterward and wouldn’t take any money for it.”
Mayor Hans Schneider met Graham for the first time as a teenager while working at Drug Mart.
“Back in the 90s when I played in a Sunday basketball league he sponsored our team a couple of times,” he said. “He was just a warmhearted, generous, and caring individual who was authentic. He was who he was. He cared about people. He wanted to make a difference, and he did. If all communities had more people like Timmy, everything would be much better off.”
Friends at the Wellington Party Center said a funeral service for Graham might need two caskets — one for Big Dog and one for his heart.
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
Photos by Jonathan Delozier | Wellington Enterprise Flowers and a picture of Tim “Big Dog” Graham sit above the counter at Dog Tracks Diner. He passed away Dec. 12 at age 63 due to complications from diabetes.