Dorothy Anne Burns Graham, childcare advocate and pioneer, died peacefully in her home with her three children by her side on March 18, 2018.
Dorothy was a poet, reader, former high school English teacher, woman of faith, contributor to the larger good, constant corrector of her children’s grammar, master punster and learner throughout life. She was born August 10, 1937 in Rosewood, North Carolina, to Gladys Powers and Roscoe Clegg Burns. After her father’s death when she was three, her family survived the Great Depression, even with little money, by coming together as a family and through education. Dorothy’s mother instilled in all of her seven children the value of an education. No matter how difficult a person’s circumstances, she said, education should always be life’s priority, and so it was for Dorothy.
After her first marriage ended in divorce in 1969, the single mother to three small children started work in a small daycare center run by her niece in Raleigh. Then in 1971, Dorothy became the director of the First Presbyterian Day School in Durham—an opportunity that forged two of her life’s greatest purposes, as a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Durham and a career ensuring that working mothers would have safe childcare and high-quality preschool education for their children. In 1976, she became the director of the Durham Day Care Council all while pursuing a Master’s in Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
She devoted her career to making daycare safe and accessible. She successfully lobbied for legislation to regulate child care, created accreditation programs for home-based care providers, and developed the framework of quality standards for parents to use in finding quality daycare that in 1987 became the model for how the state would inspect daycare homes. What started as a mother’s quest for her own children transformed into a lifelong mission that not only helped North Carolina’s working families but became a national model.
In 1974, she married John Graham. While she was very quiet and assiduously well-mannered about her politics, he was not. He was a staunch conservative Republican; she was liberal Democrat. Their strong and committed marriage was tested by their political differences, but while they disagreed on many things, she found in John a man who was as deeply committed to community, church and family as she was. Their marriage is a needed reminder in today’s polarized times that people with different political views can share the same values and love and respect each other.
Forced to retire early due to the loss of her vision from retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited form of blindness that started to take her vision in her 40s, she focused on learning as a way to cope with hardship. In her 60s, she learned Spanish by attending classes at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and Durham Technical Community College and with an open heart and deep humility reached out to any person speaking Spanish to start a conversation.
As her vision failed, she rebelled from isolation and became a photographer, outdoor enthusiast and world traveler. Because she was so thoughtful and kind with a quiet stoicism, her most surprising quality was her competitive drive to win. She hated losing at anything, especially Scrabble, and was known to dispute games she had lost even years later.
She is survived by her three children and their families. Frances “Scottie” Seawell (husband Phillip Boyle) of Carrboro. Malcolm Burns Seawell (wife Nicole Elias Seawell) of Cherry Hill Village, Colorado, and Mary Ashley Seawell (husband Lee Ferguson) of Denver, Colorado. Her nine grandchildren Erin, Rachel and Lauren Boyle; William, Cole and Mac Seawell; and Mary Hallie, Annie and Evelyn Ferguson. She is survived by her stepchildren Cynthia Lajeunesse, John Graham and Donna Graham. She is also survived by her beloved sister, Frances Burns Britt of Lumberton. She was preceded in death by a son who died in childbirth; her husband of 34 years, John Graham; four sisters Sarah Caine, Mary Lee Branan, Jean Spivey, and Gladys Holton, and a brother, Robert Burns. She deeply loved her many nieces and nephews, her sister-in-law Terrell Seawell Tracy, her travel buddies, friends who gave her rides, her church community, and her many Scrabble adversaries, even the Romanians.
A memorial service will be held at the First Presbyterian Church of Durham on Saturday, March 31, 2018 at 10:00 am.
Donations may be made in her memory to the Foundation for Fighting Blindness, please specify to support research for retinal diseases (http://www.blindness.org/) and the First Presbyterian Church of Durham (https://firstpres-durham.org/).
The Graham family is under the care of Hall-Wynne Funeral Service. Online condolences: www.hallwynne.com; Select Obituaries.