Steffen William Graae

Born: September 25, 1940
Died: September 16, 2005

Steffen Graae was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, son of a Dane, Soren Julius Winkel Graae, and an American, Madge Hilda Jopson Graae. The family emigrated to America in 1951. Steff prepared for Yale at Kent, where he roomed with future Yale classmate (and roommate) Willy Wheeler.

At Yale, Steff was a resident of Silliman and a member of Torch and of Scroll and Key. He was coxswain of our Freshman crew which upset highly favored Harvard in 1959, and he earned his major Y in the sport. He was also starting cox in the varsity eight during the successful 1962 season, piloting the shell to the Eastern Championships. Although appendicitis sidelined him for the Harvard boat race, he returned to cox Yale's successful competition at the Royal Henley Regatta that summer.

Steff was a History Honors major and a ranking scholar. He then obtained his M.A. in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford in 1964, where he coached the crew. In the words of classmate and crew captain Duncan Spencer, Steff, "though short and slim, yet was graced with a voice not unlike a foghorn in its depth and power. ... He was one of the best coxswains Yale ever had and, later as a post-graduate at Oxford's St. Edmund Hall, one of the best coaches ever to ride the tow paths of the Isis and the Thames."

After Oxford Steff had a variety of jobs from camp-tender in the High Sierras to air traffic forecaster for the Federal Aviation Agency to a post on the Africa desk of the U.S. Agency for International Development. While working for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, he decided to become a lawyer. He graduated from the Georgetown Law Center in 1973, clerked for a D.C. Superior Court judge for a year and then essentially had a solo practice until 1982 when President Reagan appointed him to the Superior Court bench. He served on this court until his retirement from active service in 2004. At the time of his retirement, Steff was Presiding Judge of the Civil Division of the Superior Court.

Steff's judicial career is legendary in Washington. He is revered for his decision in 1994 ordering the District's public housing agency into receivership after years of neglect and corruption and appointing a turnaround specialist to manage it. He met weekly with the receiver over a six-year period until the agency was rehabilitated and returned to the city's management. "He was a giant of our bench, with a very quick mind and an omnivorous intelligence," said Chief Judge Rufus G. King. "That was the single most successful receivership the city has ever had. This was a home run."

Known as a man of firm resolve and sure opinions, he once ordered U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese to appear at a hearing to show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court for ignoring a court order regarding prisoners sentenced to work-release programs who were, nevertheless, being shipped to distant federal prisons. "You don't do that lightly, and you think about that carefully," Judge King stated, "but for Steffen, there was no question. The issue was what was the right thing to do under the law. That's what he was going to do." He issued the order, and the Justice Department relented.

His dry wit amused friends and colleagues. Chief Judge King recalled a workshop years ago intended to sensitize judges to the difficulties of those with disabilities. "It's as if you were suddenly required to understand Danish," the seminar leader said. From the back of the room came a burst of Danish from Steffen.

"He was one of the least reversed judges," said U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina. "He wrote brilliantly, he decided brilliantly and it was generally thought he was the brightest judge on the court." He did not tolerate ill-prepared lawyers and was known for bluntly calling their bluff, Urbina added.

In 1965 he and his wife Cynthia purchased a townhouse in D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which Steff, despite having no construction experience, renovated himself. "The most incredible thing was that he put a fireplace in," Cynthia said. "He bought a pre-fabricated fireplace and flue, installed them inside the house and then cut a hole in the roof where he thought the flue should be and he was right. He put the whole fireplace in and it never leaked; it was amazing. I was amazed and I think he was, too." After renovating their home, Steff created an identical one-inch to one-foot scale model doll house of the family's Chincoteague, Virginia vacation home for his daughter Jessica.

Steff was also a gourmet cook, who smoked his own fish, created his own paella and was known for his bouillabaisse. Steff was an avid reader and a lover of classical music. He was on the board of the Capitol Hill Chorale and the Frederick B. Abramson Foundation. He also found the time to write a book on the law of evidence widely used in the D.C. courts and to edit the D.C. civil practice handbook.

"He liked to make people laugh. People enjoyed his company. He had an incredible sense of humor, he was just fun to be around," Cynthia recalled.

Steff and his family spent time away from Washington at their vacation homes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in Hiram, Maine.

Steff was born with a congenital heart defect, first accurately diagnosed when he was at Yale. It began to take its toll on his strength about 6 years ago, resulting in his retirement in 2004. He was at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment when he died on September 16, 2005.

A memorial serivce held at St. Albans' Church was attended by over 200, including all the judges of the D.C. Superior Court with whom he had served, as well as several classmates including Bob Bremner, Ellis Wisner, Willy Wheeler, Christopher "Kit" Kincade and Bill Doying. Among those who eulogized him were his brother Flemming, Chief Judge King and Wheeler, who recalled that Steff's father was a member of the Danish underground resistance in World War II and had given Steffen a clear sense of right and wrong. His strength of principle and ethical humanism inspired many. and these qualities were a recurring theme in the remembrances, observed Bremner. The moving eulogies, Wisner wrote, gave witness that "Steffen's accomplishments on the bench touched many, many lives for the better."

Steff's daughter Jessica, a professional opera singer who had studied with classmate John Stewart, "filled the church with haunting refrains from Bach and Brahms," said Bremner. Duncan Spencer had published an article focusing on Steff's crew exploits in the Capitol Hill neighborhood newspaper, and this moving tribute was also distributed at the service.

"He was a wonderful person," recalled Wheeler, "a quintessential liberal and a bon vivant, who loved good food, good wine, and good cigars."

Steff participated on a panel at our April 2005 Washington D.C. Mini-Reunion, speaking about government service from the perspective of the judiciary in today's Washington.

Steff is survived by his wife of 39 years, Cynthia Norris Graae, their only child, Jessica of Newark, Delaware, his mother of Katonah, N.Y., and two brothers, Flemming of South Salem, N.Y., and Christopher of Washington, D.C.

In lieu of flowers, the family asked that memorial contributions be made to the Adult Congenital Heart Association, 6757 Greene Street, Philadelphia, PA 19119.

Classmate tributes: by Robert Bremner   |   by Ellis Wisner