2012 Silver Plate—Lyman Graham brings three districts into financial stability

From a start as a custodian, Graham finds a home in child nutrition.

In today’s challenging school foodservice atmosphere, it’s difficult enough to manage one district, let alone three, but that’s exactly what Lyman Graham has done for the past seven years. Graham is the foodservice director at three New Mexico school districts: Roswell Independent School District, Carlsbad Municipal Schools and Dexter Consolidated Schools.

From maintenance to foodservice: That fact becomes even more surprising when you consider that Graham began working in schools not in child nutrition but in maintenance. In 1989, Graham was between jobs when a friend, who was head of maintenance at Dexter Consolidated Schools, asked if Graham would help out as a custodian. Graham accepted, saying, “I don’t think I’ll stay very long.”

However Graham’s friend, Carl Gerken, knew his talents lay not in maintenance but in the kitchen. He knew, for example, that Graham got his culinary start at age five when he became the family’s cook.

“My mom was sick, and I was the oldest of four siblings,” Graham says. “She was not able to stand and cook. My dad built me a box so that I could stand on it and look over the frying pan on the stove and not burn myself. My mom began to teach me how to cook. In addition to cooking for his family, Graham also cooked for the cowboys who worked on his family’s ranch.

The head of maintenance at Dexter relayed this knowledge to Dexter’s administration. “He was going behind my back telling the superintendent that they needed to have me run the cafeteria,” Graham says. “I had worked as a custodian for about nine months when the lady who was running the cafeteria retired, and they asked me to take the job. So I agreed, but I told them. ‘I don’t know anything about the government regulations, but I’ll feed people well.’ They said, ‘You can learn what you need to learn.’”

Gaining attention: While at Dexter Graham did a lot of catering. After one event, a school board meeting that included the representatives of nearby Carlsbad Municipal Schools, Graham was approached by Vernon Asbill, Carlsbad’s superintendent. “He asked me what it would take for me to come to Carlsbad [to run its program],” Graham recalls. “I didn’t think he was serious and I sure wasn’t. I told him offer me $5 more [than what I’m making in Dexter] and I’ll go. About three days later, he called me and said, ‘We’re having a lot of problems with our cafeteria system. We enjoyed your meal and would you come and give us some advice?’”

Graham agreed to talk with the superintendent. However, he wasn’t looking for advice. Instead he was interviewing Graham. He offered Graham the job, and he accepted.

Graham worked at Carlsbad for two years before Roswell Independent School District, the city where Graham lived, found itself without a director. “Every evening I would drive home to my house in Roswell and there would be some of the cafeteria ladies [from Roswell] visiting with my wife telling her they wanted me to apply,” Graham says. “I told them I just got this job in Carlsbad and I haven’t gotten them where I want them, so I don’t want to leave. I kept telling them no. One day the ladies brought the superintendent of schools [Michael Gottlieb] to my house and he persuaded me to help them until they found somebody. This has been the end of 10 years that they haven’t found anybody. If they’re looking, they aren’t looking very hard.”

Around 2006, Dexter came calling. Patricia Parsons, Dexter’s superintendent, had been a principal when Graham worked at the district earlier. “The superintendent said, “I’ve made a deal with Roswell that you can work for them and Dexter schools and you can resign from Carlsbad and fix our foodservice program,’” Graham recalls. “The next day I turned in my resignation to Carlsbad and everybody got sad. So the principals and the ladies who worked for me began to go to the board and superintendent and they said he’s been helping Roswell without being there every day, so I think you ought to offer him to do Carlsbad the same way. So here I am, seven years, later running all three districts. I work out of Roswell. All three superintendents and boards have been very gracious to let me run it like a business. Some days I tell them my title is crisis management because it seems to be the biggest crisis is where I go.”