The Graves’ family cattle farm lies outside of
Smithville, in the northwest corner of the state.
The folks up there, says Brad Lager, a longtime
friend of Graves and former state senator, have a
strong sense of who they are.
“They get up early and go to bed late, and they
work hard all day because they understand if they
do, they are going to get paid a fair wage,” Lager
says. “And when there’s a problem, it’s roll-up-
your-sleeves and let’s get to work fixing it.”
On this particular afternoon, Graves is doing
just that. He’s dressed in jeans, a farm-friendly
button-up and leather work boots. Sitting in the
loft of his barn, he looks out over his beloved
herd of cattle.
Just a few years ago, the family tore down
the original, dilapidated barn. Graves took off
the siding, planed down the boards and made
the hardwood floor his boots clomp across.
It’s not unlike him to be working at the farm
on a weekday instead of at Graves Garrett in
downtown Kansas City. The countryside, he says,
is part of who he is. He does some ranching
every day. It’s in his blood—his great-great-great
grandparents bought the land not far from the
Platte River, back in 1867, and the Peterson
(Graves’ middle name) family has been there
The Graves have continuity in common. They
also had politics in common—until Graves.
“The family was essentially FDR Democrats
until my generation came along,” says Graves,
who last year was tapped to lead the Missouri
Helming a firm with a national political profile,
being the face of the state’s Republican Party and
raising 200 head of cows—Graves counts each
as a critical part of his sense of self, yet the cattle
often get the upper hand. “Sometimes I feel
like this whole lawyer thing is just a temporary
diversion from livestock,” he says.
GRAVES, 51, WENT TO THE UNIVERSITY
OF MISSOURI with the intention of studying
agricultural economics. Politics was an early
interest, too, which led him to work on Kit Bond’s
1986 Missouri Senate campaign. But upon
returning to school for his junior year in January
1987, everything changed—he was diagnosed
with a stage two lymphoma near his groin, a
kind of cancer so rare he had a difficult time
finding treatment. He was 21. “The prognosis was
extremely dire,” he says.
Initially, he received treatment at the local
MU hospital, but was eventually transported to
Houston for full diagnosis and surgery. He stayed
for several months. “I had a 10-hour surgery, and
began chemotherapy right away,” he says.
doesn’t need monitoring as often as he used to.
He notes that he’s the last one left alive from a
group study of individuals with his condition.)
In 1991, the powerful Manhattan law firm
Skadden Arps offered Graves a $95,000 job
in New York; the Missouri Attorney General’s
office put in its own bid for a gig in the opinions
department: $26,000. Graves came home.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made,”
he says. “I think a lot of lawyers take the obvious
path, and at that time that’s what Skadden Arps
was—Barbarians at the Gate was just written,
and it was the hottest firm in the country. [But]
in a more modest surrounding, I started doing
meaningful work immediately, and had a lot of
responsibility. … It gave me the opportunity to
meet people, which led to opportunities to serve
as U.S. attorney and other positions.”
Graves was simultaneously nursing his love of
politics and his appetite for the law.
In 1988, he worked for John Danforth’s U.S.
Senate re-election campaign, then spearheaded
Republican David Steelman’s failed run for the
state attorney general slot four years later. By
then he was working at Kansas City’s Bryan
Cave, until politics again interrupted—Graves
quit to run for public office, winning the job of
Platte County prosecutor.
The newly elected Graves was the youngest
full-time prosecuting attorney in the state, and
by his own admission, he had more political
It was not easy.
“From February 1987 through the end of the
year, every three weeks, my doctors gave me
a treatment that made me violently sick every
20 minutes for 26 hours—like clockwork,” he
says. “You’d feel OK for about five minutes out
of the 20, and then it would start again—feeling
progressively worse until getting violently ill.” He
remains gracious to the professors who worked
with him around his illness.
“All my hair fell out,” he says. “I spent so
much time that year thinking that that was my
last year. … It probably made me a lot more
focused and driven.”
Considering what he’d gone through, Graves
wasn’t going to think long about fencepost
holes—he just started digging. He enrolled in
law school at the University of Virginia and lost
himself in classes. He got his J.D., and a master’s
in public administration, in three years.
“[Law school] allowed me not to focus on
health concerns,” he says, “although it did make
me really intense at that age.”
Throughout law school, he traveled often
to Houston for monitoring, but required no
additional treatment. (While he’s never been
given the proverbial “clean bill” of health, Graves