The Godfather of the Special Events Industry: A Tribute to Bob Graves (December 3, 1925 – June 12, 2021)

Bob Graves

As is my custom, I annually telephone old friends at American Thanksgiving and Christmas to tell them I love them and catch up on their lives. Tonight when I rang one of my oldest friends, I discovered that he had peacefully passed away on the twelfth of June 2021 at the age of 95. Upon hearing this news from his son, I gasped, because although it is not unusual to die in ones nineties, I was still unprepared for this loss.

Bob and I first met in the late 1980’s when I delivered a speech at The Special Event Conference and Exhibition at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. Bob was a very successful businessman who had founded the largest party rental business in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was also a founder of the party rental division of the American Rental Association and the tent rental division of the American Fabrics Association. He was also a pioneer in the design and erection of tents for parties and one time created an award winning giant structure for the owner of Forbes Magazine when he hosted an event for the movie star Elizabeth Taylor and many other celebrities.

During The Special Event conference, it was customary to attend over the top evening events that showcased the latest and greatest trends and innovations in the emerging special events industry. One evening, Bob and I were seated side by side in the front row of a bus carrying 50 other folks to one of these fabulous events. He turned to me and said in a conspiratorial voice, similar to that of Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather and whispered, “Joe, you know what these people sitting behind us need?” I was surprised by his question because I thought that the successful people behind me were doing just fine as evidenced by their attendance at this prominent conference.

I then made the fatal mistake of asking Bob Graves to tell me what he believed they needed. “They need an association. There are associations for rental, for tents, for music, for decor, for floral, however, there is not one association for all of us to do business together.” I scratched my head, nodded in agreement and then made the further fatal mistake of asking Bob why he had confided this information with me?

“Because you are the one to start an association that will bring all of us together for a common purpose to improve education and develop credentialing for this group that will help them become recognised as a professional industry.”

With that simple sentence Bob had conceived the modern special events industry. One year later, myself, along with many other talented leaders, hosted a well attended meeting at the next special event conference and we were off and running. The organisation was originally entitled the International Special Events Society (ISES) and later was renamed the International Live Events Association (ILEA). Today ILEA has members and chapters from America to Africa and indeed all over the world. However, the early days were challenging. In addition to launching our association with his idea, Bob also became our godfather and angel investor who provided much of the early capital, both financial and intellectual, to help insure our success.

In addition to being successful in business Bob was a devoted to his wife and he shared 70 years of marriage with the woman he always introduced as his girlfriend. Anita was every bit the perfect partner for her indomitable husband. She once told me that while in school she payed girl’s basketball and concocted a secret move to help her team win many of their games. She said with a twinkle in her eye that she always played close to the wall and when a player from the opposing team would rush her to take away the ball she always slid quickly to the left or right so the other player when charging forward would land smack into the wall. She then smiled and said “When I played, there were lots of concussions and many victories!”

Following Anita’s death in 2014, I rang Bob one Christmas and asked how he was doing. He said he could not speak because he was out for a drive with his cougar. I could not imagine what he meant and thought perhaps at ninety he was starting to become senile. I made the mistake again of asking him what he meant by the term cougar and he said “My new girlfriend is 92 and I am 90 and she is after me all the time!” Once again, I was speechless.

During his long career, Bob’s generosity of spirit was felt by his colleagues in the special events industry when time after time he would anonymously write a check to help the organisation he founded overcome what soon came to be regularly known as another “ISES crisis”. He served as a mentor to hundreds of younger businessmen and women and a role model for all who valued loyalty, integrity, and devotion to family and friends. In recognition of his devotion to the ILEA and its predecessor ISES, the J. Robert Graves Pioneer Award is annually bestowed to a volunteer who has significantly contributed to the growth and development of the association, not only through creative vision but through determined execution. This award perfectly encapsulates the many pioneering contributions Bob unselfishly gifted to an embryonic industry.

A few years after our first meeting, another conference was held in New Orleans, Louisiana to mark the first birthday of the special events association that Bob had helped to found. Part of the decorations included a giant inflatable birthday cake in the center of the large dance floor. At the end of the evening celebration the cake started to deflate and when I looked throughout the room to thank Bob for his help in starting the organisation I found him sinking into the center of the cake with a whisky glass in hand and a grin as wide as the great white tents he had erected.

When Bob Graves asked me, as did Moses ask Joshua, to lead the tribe to the promised land of special events, he became for time eternal the beloved godfather of the modern special events industry. In fact, he made all of us an offer we simply could not refuse. He helped us to see upon the horizon an emerging industry and infinite opportunities to bring millions of guests together professionally, safely and with boundless creativity. Therefore, I am grateful that myself and many others received Bob’s generous offer and thanks to his wisdom, kindness and generosity, a modern industry was lovingly gifted to the world by the godfather of special events.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and has been a friend of Bob Graves for over three decades. Joe served as founding president of the International Special Events Society from 1989 to 1991. To read his other tributes and views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot.

14 thoughts on “The Godfather of the Special Events Industry: A Tribute to Bob Graves (December 3, 1925 – June 12, 2021)

  • December 31, 2021 at 5:24 pm
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    A wonderful tribute! Thank you Joe Jeff for sharing this.

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    • January 2, 2022 at 8:50 pm
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      My pleasure Brian. Best wishes to you and your family for a healthy and successful year.

      Reply
  • January 3, 2022 at 11:46 pm
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    Wow what a great tribute. So much I learned from tour tribute, thank you for sharing. Kathy

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  • January 5, 2022 at 7:13 pm
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    Wonderful tribute – it is so amazing to see back into the origins of ILEA, as well as to honour Robert’s memory and his generous contributions and love for our industry.

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  • January 7, 2022 at 1:57 am
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    Great tribute, Joe, to a great man. I so enjoyed talking with Bob. He was amazing in so many ways and with every conversation I learned more about business and our industry. He was kind and generous. I’m so happy to have known him.

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  • January 7, 2022 at 3:38 pm
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    This is terrific, Joe Jeff, and Bob certainly chose the right person to be the first ISES president. What a legacy!

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  • January 12, 2022 at 11:16 pm
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    Joe, as Bob was my first real mentor, and you my second, I thank you for this lovely tribute. I was in the first group of 75 CSEPs, and always considered Bob my dear friend and mentor. Anita was the perfect woman for him and he was a great business man in his personal and business ethics. I will always think of him with much fondness and great reverence. He was always JRobert as
    I called him. I am proud to have shared my 53 year journey with you both. Joanne Hulme Gunzenhauser.

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      • January 18, 2022 at 1:50 am
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        Yes, from the first meetings as ISES was forming in the building were I was the GM of Floral Fantasies and Fantasy Productions where our first official was being formed, to my long term friendship with the founding member, to be at the meeting at Glen Forde where we create the first mission statement , to you introducing me in Washington DC as one of the first 75 CSEPs, to my first run of 12 years on being on the local board of ISES. to lunches at The Union League with Bob who then drove me around Phila. to do many errands for his beloved Anita. You and Bob guided and supported me all along the way. Then my boss, Marc Rose took over the presidency of ISES. How lucky was I! What a great life and career we all shared! Yes, I miss him much,

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  • January 18, 2022 at 2:50 am
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    As I continue to reread this many times . I wanted to comment that the Malcom Forbes event had amazing tenting, and fabulous decor from Carole Powers Gordon, and he showed off his great collection of Faberge Eggs. We, Bob, Wayne and the gang at Main Line Party Rentals were nominated for a Gala Award as well. Again, how lucky were we to have shared these adventures with Bob!

    Reply

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