This past week, historic preservation students Chris Bryan and Jeff Brammer were the latest students to be honored with the Graff Prize, a $5,000 award celebrating outstanding students who have completed their master’s degrees in historic preservation. While the virtual awards ceremony has become a wistful pandemic norm, this year’s presentation was especially bittersweet, in that the benefactor could not share in the celebration. Dr. Jon Graff (’66, Ph.D. ’71), a biochemist-turned-computer scientist, unlikely hero to Maryland’s Historic Preservation Program and namesake of the Graff Prize, lost his fight with cancer in January.
“Jon was an incredible friend and champion of our students,” said Interim Dean Donald Linebaugh, who got to know Graff well prior to his death. “It was kind of out-of-the-blue and a happenstance connection, but he was intrigued with the work we were doing in the program. This gift was a way to take support straight to the students, which I think he valued as the next great hope for any discipline, whether its chemistry or historic preservation.”
It might be surprising that a self-taught computer scientist who made a splash in Silicon Valley would be one of the Historic Preservation Program’s biggest supporters. But Jon Graff’s passion for the world’s architecture and history made him a recreational advocate of saving old places. His work took him all over the world, allowing him to explore ancient cultures and architectural marvels; in retirement, he began tagging along on paleontology digs in North America and Mongolia.
A longtime philanthropist, Graff kicked his giving into high gear when he was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, sharing his fortune with a number of meaningful causes. At UMD, he established a lecture hall and lab for the Chemistry Department, a TerpStart Scholarship and a new periodic table when he saw that students were still using the same table he stared at daily as a student in the ‘60s.
A friendship with former MAPP Assistant Dean for Development Andrea Morris, which began when she was the director of development for CMNS, was Graff’s introduction to the historic preservation world at Maryland. Getting to know Graff over years of phone calls, campus tours and plates of Chinese Food at his favorite San Francisco haunts, Morris knew about his passion for preserving history. When he told her one day that he wanted to give some money to the National Trust for Historic Preservation but couldn’t get them on the phone, she suggested an alternative.
“He told me he wanted to provide this gift and I said, ‘You want to give them this gift and they aren’t answering the phone? You give it to the preservation program and you would be a hero!’ And he said, ‘I think I will then!’”
Graff visited the program, where Interim Dean and former Historic Preservation Program Director Don Linebaugh introduced him to students and research findings and provided a tour of Bostwick House; they bonded over their shared love of cycling and its meditative qualities. He was impressed by Don’s knowledge of colonial-era architecture and his dedication to students, said Morris, and for taking the time to share with Jon the impact that giving can have at the student level.
“As much as it is good to give to an organization like the National Trust for Historic Preservation or even a sizeable department like Chemistry, when you give money to a program that’s the size of Historic Preservation, it can change someone’s life,” says Morris.
The first Graff Prize recipient was Daniela Tai in 2019, followed by Paula Nasta in 2020. While he was never able to present a Graff medallion in person, he relished in learning about the student’s work and was an enthusiastic champion of their future pursuits.
“It’s a very significant gift that allows us, for the first time, to really acknowledge and support students who are excelling in the program in a way we haven’t been able to in the past,” said Linebaugh. “Jon was really focused on rewarding excellence and this gift is absolutely in that spirit.”
Interested in supporting programs like the Graff Prize? Learn how your gift can transform the student experience by visiting the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s giving page.