May 25 – Happy Birthday John T. DeGraff

JohnDeGraff222A member of one of Amsterdam’s oldest families with direct lineage to Louis IX, King of France, many expected John Teller DeGraff was headed for great things, when he was named the Amsterdam High School’s Class of 1919 Sanford Medal recipient. His ancestors had come to America midway in the 17th century and settled on land just east of modern day Amsterdam, where they created one of the Mohawk Valley’s most prosperous farms. Born on May 25, 1902, He was the son of Edward T. and Anna Taylor DeGraff. His father had replaced his grandfather and namesake as teller of Amsterdam’s Farmers National Bank in 1891. After 20 years in that position, Edward DeGraff took up the breeding of Rhode Island Red Hens back on the family farm and became one of the country’s top experts on that subject and a leading figure in the US poultry industry. But when today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant graduated from high school and left the family farm to attend college. his father left Amsterdam too, abandoning his hens for what would be a noteworthy career in real estate and residential construction in Albany, NY.

Meanwhile, John Teller DeGraff became one of the most successful students in the history of St. Lawrence Universeity, graduating at the top his class in 1922 while captaining both the school’s debate and basketball teams and landing the leading role in the senior play. He then returned to his parents new home in Albany, where he joined his father’s real estate and construction business while also attending Albany Law School.

Amsterdam native John T. Degraff (standing in middle) watches NY Gov. Herbert Lehman sign 1937 Civil Service bill
Amsterdam native John T. Degraff (standing in middle) watches NY Gov. Herbert Lehman sign 1937 Civil Service Career bill

In 1937, he accepted the position of general counsel to the Civil Service Employees Association. During his first year in that post DeGraff authored the lion share of New York State’s Civil Service Career bill. In it, DeGraff included the state statutes that standardized employment grades, salary scales and promotion steps for all state employees. He was also the author of the primary provisions of New York State’s retirement System.

In 1940, he became one of the three members on New York State’s Board of Law Examiners and in 1949, he was named chairman of that board, which is responsible for administering the state’s bar examination. One of the changes he championed on the bar exam was the elimination of abstract questions designed to test for memory in favor of those that tested a candidate’s ability to use legal reasoning.

He and his wife Pauline raised three children in their Albany home before retiring to Arizona, where DeGraff died in September of 1983, at the age of 81. Both Degraff Street in the city’s East End and DeGraff Road, east of the city, in the Town of Amsterdam are named after his family.

DeGraff shared his May 25th birthday with this former Amsterdam interior designer.

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