Even a year after her passing, Nancy Graf’s work continues. Only these days, it’s through her husband. A formerly inactive Catholic, Bill Graf, 61, now plays the part once carried out by one of the most active members of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, Iowa. Filling Nancy’s spot in various ministries is part therapy, part way to honor the memory of a woman he calls “the definition of a servant leader.”
Her gift for service began to appear to Bill when he was a junior at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Nancy Lijewski, then a junior at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul and an acquaintance of Bill, was visiting his apartment with friends when she slipped from his sight. Looking for her, he found her at the kitchen sink, washing his dishes.
Soon after, the two started dating. They wed when Bill was a senior, on Jan. 31, 1970.
When they moved to Iowa City in 1975, Nancy began teaching religious education and volunteering for other ministries at St. Thomas More Parish. But Bill, then an information system analyst at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, spent Sunday mornings working or sleeping in.
“I thought it was my duty to work and support my family,” says the father of four. “… I kind of floated away from the church.”
Nancy’s example left an impression on him, though. A researcher at the National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice at the University of Iowa School of Social Work, she filled her free time volunteering for St. Thomas More. What activities would give him purpose during retirement, he wondered as he grew older.
What happened Dec. 7, 2008, ultimately motivated him to make changes. That day, Nancy was returning home from her sister’s house near La Crosse, Wis., where Nancy was finishing her master’s degree in servant leadership at Viterbo University. While driving along U.S. 52 near Decorah in snowy weather, her minivan spun into the left lane and was struck by an oncoming car. When first responders arrived, Bill says, they couldn’t find Nancy’s pulse.
“Right after the accident I felt that a part of me died,” he says. He was plagued by guilt, too, and thoughts of how he might have prevented the tragedy.
But after talking with a friend who’d also lost his wife, Bill realized he had two options: “You can lose hope or you can continue. You can turn to despair or you can turn to the church.”
In hopes of seeing Nancy again, in heaven, he chose the latter. So a few weeks after the accident, he asked his friend Lee Gullickson, a member of St. Thomas More, to tell him more about what Nancy had been involved in at the parish.
Bill wrote a list of her activities — including the Evangelization and Stewardship Commission, choir, Christian Experience Weekend, baptism preparation, knitting ministry, Church Life and Family Life Commission, and several other groups.
Then he got involved. He joined the Evangelization and Stewardship Commission. He served as a lector. He assisted the steering committee for the parish’s new church. He donated funds for a baptismal font. He gave a witness talk to a stewardship group.
“I told him once that Nancy must be channeling through him,” says Father Walter Helms, St. Thomas More’s pastor. “… He has done so much for us.”
Bill’s relationship with God has changed, too. “I find myself talking to God more,” asking for strength, he says. “I find it much more personal.”
He recalls talking with Nancy a few years ago about their priorities; she listed God first. “To be honest, I was a little jealous,” he says. “She picked God over me.” But after he took part in the St. Ambrose Stewardship Institute earlier this year, he began to understand her choice.
Bill wishes he could talk about that new insight with Nancy. But he says that because they were “so close” for nearly 40 years, “over time I am realizing that Nancy lives within me, or at least part of her.”
Katie Graf, 25, and Joe Graf, 32, Bill’s two youngest children, say they’re proud of how their dad has responded to tragedy. Besides renewing his faith, he’s become more open, a better listener, Katie says — and their relationship has grown.
But it’s Bill’s growth in faith that answers a request Nancy had long prayed for, Katie notes. “That’s the one thing she really wanted for my dad,” she says. “She is really happy now.”
Printed with permission from The Catholic Messenger, newspaper for the Diocese of Davenport.