Anne McGraw heard some version of the same question for most of her career at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where she taught kids how to read, write and do math while they endured treatment for serious and sometimes terminal illnesses.
How do you do it?
It was a fair question, given how hard it was to watch her students suffer. One month, she attended nine funerals.
But McGraw’s answer always was the same: “It’s not about me.”
For McGraw, who died of liver cancer Feb. 14 at her home in Hyde Park, the students always came first, friends and relatives say. It’s why she started the school program at the Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute at Cincinnati Children’s, and it’s why she spent almost a quarter-century teaching and volunteering there.
She didn’t set out to be a pioneer in her field. After graduating from Ursuline Academy and St. Mary’s College, McGraw taught in traditional schools for several years before taking time off to raise her four daughters in Cincinnati.
While volunteering with the main school program at Cincinnati Children's, McGraw saw a need to better serve the sickest children. She believed those kids often were overlooked because their diseases and treatments were so debilitating.
For them, school wasn’t a priority. Parents and doctors were more worried about getting them through the day than making sure they learned their multiplication tables.
But McGraw argued that daily contact with a teacher provided more than just an educational benefit. It gave the kids purpose, she said, and it gave them something to think about other than their next round of chemotherapy.
She told The Enquirer in 2016 that she often was waved away by parents who were convinced their children were too sick or tired for lessons that day, only to find the children had other ideas.
“I want school,” they’d say.
“School was so important,” McGraw explained in 2016. “It is their hope for the future.”
Even if that future was grim, McGraw knew it was her job to teach. When a little boy with a terminal illness told her years ago that he wanted to master fractions, McGraw made it her mission to help him achieve his goal before he died.
“She grew so close to those patients,” said her daughter, Carey McGraw Kuznar. “She was just so selfless, and so caring.”
She said her mom also fought to build the program into what she felt it should be, leading fundraising campaigns while also tending to the day-to-day needs of her students.
“She just wanted to help people,” Kuznar said.
Cincinnati Children's CEO Michael Fisher said McGraw’s commitment to the kids and the program was obvious to anyone who watched her work. “A skilled a devoted teacher,” he said of McGraw. “A passionate and compassionate member of the care team.”
After retiring five years ago, McGraw continued to volunteer at Cincinnati Children's and served on the board of the hospice program, which helps families pay for palliative care and funerals.
Though she didn’t seek recognition for her work, McGraw often found it anyway. She won numerous awards, including Enquirer Woman of the Year in 2016, which she saw as an opportunity to celebrate the program, her colleagues, her students and her faith.
“Anne has been a wonderful example of a faith-filled life,” said the Rev. Michael Graham, former president of Xavier University.
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley described her as a “wonderful servant leader," adding "her impact will be felt for generations to come."
A few months ago, on her 70th birthday, friends and family gathered to celebrate her life and her legacy. McGraw was weak from cancer treatments, and it was a challenge to keep everyone socially distanced because of the pandemic.
But McGraw listened as her children shared stories about her achievements and smiled as her grandchildren presented her with “Grammy Awards,” paper plate trophies that honored her for having the “best smile” or for packing the “best picnic dinner.”
It was a great party, Kuznar said.
After a lifetime of serving others, her mom finally got a night that was all about her.
McGraw is survived by her husband, James; daughters Carey McGraw Kuznar, of Montgomery, Lauren McGraw Combs, of Bloomfield, Michigan, Jenny McGraw, of Hyde Park, and Courtney McGraw Gasper, of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; brothers Jim Scheidler, John Scheidler and Tom Scheidler; sisters Janet Cremons and Donna Gruber; and 10 grandchildren.
Visitation: Friday from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Rohde Funeral Home, 3183 Linwood Ave., Mount Lookout. Services: Saturday at 10 a.m. at Our Lord Christ the King Church, 3223 Linwood Ave., Mount Lookout. Memorials: StarShine Hospice and Palliative Care at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
Cameron Knight contributed to this story.