Humans of UK: Joe Graft is living history


Joe Graft poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Corrie McCroskey | Staff

Corrie McCroskey

It was 1968, and Louisville native Joe Graft was a junior studying finance at UK with plans to someday join the military full-time. That day came much sooner than he thought.

At only 23, Graft was drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War and was forced to leave his studies behind.

“I could’ve gone in and taken two years and probably been sent to ‘Nam. I said, ‘Let me shop around.’ I looked at Air Force, Army, you can do that,” Graft said.

Upon his conscription, Graft went through boot camp and electronic warfare training. He was deployed to Germany shortly after.

“I decided to pick the Army Security Agency; it took a four-year enlistment. I weighed four years against two years and possibly coming home in a body bag,” Graft said. “I took the four years.”

After leaving the service, Graft traveled around Europe, living out of his BMW and using every spare penny he had. When the money ran out, he decided it was time to go back home and get to work.

He arrived back at UK in 1972 and began working in the engineering machine shop while he finished his degree.

Though his aspirations of investing led him to study finance, Graft minored in engineering, a passion that began at an early age when he spent most of his childhood in an orphanage.

“My mother died at childbirth. There were four of us and there was no way my dad could raise us,” Graft said. “When I was in the third grade, I would follow these maintenance guys around and I just thought, ‘Wow, they can do all these things; I want to be this.’”

Now 76, Graft has spent the last 49 years of his life working for UK as a utility systems engineer. He oversees building operations, writes standards for construction and checks city mapping for inaccuracies.

Graft has been part of countless construction projects on campus and has also worked hands-on in the shop, crafting objects like the cannon that sits in Buell Armory.

“We used to fire that on Stoll Field. We would drag it on the field in the endzone, and when our team scored, we fired it,” Graft said.

Looking back at his career, Graft remembers the excitement of new projects and says that the university provided him with knowledge that he was able to use outside of work.

“Because of the different shops that were here, I had an invaluable resource that I could go down and look at some of these projects while they were being built and learn. It was like a classroom,” Graft said.

Set to retire in April, Graft enjoys woodwork and gardening and plans to continue work on an addition he built to his home.

He also hopes to be able to travel again, saying that he would like to go “coast to coast on a train.”

“My dad was a machinist and he built steam locomotives … Of course, I took trains all over Europe,” Graft said. “I’d like to see some of the country that way. I’ve traveled to 30-35 states, and I’d like to knock them all out. That’s on my bucket list.”