There are a lot of people we could thank for giving us Billy Graham. One of them was Mordecai Ham, a traveling evangelist from Kentucky. Billy Graham was a wayward young teen who dreamed of playing baseball, but it was after hearing Ham preach the gospel that his life was changed.
Then there is William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron, who after hearing Graham in one of his early crusades in Los Angeles sent word to his newspapers to feature stories on Graham. “Puff Graham,” was the brief, but very direct message from Hearst.
Other newspapers and magazines followed. Some papers even carried “box scores” of the number of people who made a commitment to Christ at Graham’s crusades.
The tall, lanky North Carolinian who was dubbed “America’s pastor” died Wednesday at the age of 99.
Rick Story of Clayton, who now serves as vice-president for economic development at North Georgia Technical College in Clarkesville, was Graham’s last personal assistant. He has wonderful stories of his time spent with Graham and his wife, Ruth.
It was not exactly planned the way it happened. Story, who had worked in Washington for U.S. Reps. Newt Gingrich and Nathan Deal, was hired by Franklin Graham, the evangelist’s son.
On one of his first days, it was learned that Billy Graham was going to the Mayo Clinic for what was anticipated as a routine doctor visit. Franklin Graham asked Story to accompany him.
As it turned out, Graham had to undergo surgery and Rick sat by his bedside waiting on him to regain consciousness. When he did, he asked Rick to read to him from his Bible.
The intimidation factor of being asked to read the Bible to Billy Graham, on a scale of 1 to 10, is about a 27.
“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job,” Story began. Unfortunately, “Job” came out as “job,” as in “Will I have a job when this is over?”
“Would you like to try that again,” the kindly Graham said.
Graham was not without his mistakes, too. In 1950, he was invited to visit the White House to pray with President Harry S. Truman. When he and his associates left the building, a reporter asked him about his private time with the president. He then asked them to show him how they knelt with Truman. A photographer snapped a picture of them kneeling on the White House lawn.
After the story and photo were published, Truman said Graham was “persona non grata” at the White House. Years later the two men would laugh about the young evangelist’s naiveté.
Graham’s crusades were major events that involved many months of planning. He engaged local church leaders to help minister to those who would come forward during the invitation to salvation. He filled large stadiums with tens of thousands of people from all walks of life.
“This is not mass evangelism,” Graham would say, “but personal evangelism on a mass scale.”
He used the emerging technology of television to share his message around the world and in many languages.
When he wrote his autobiography, Graham said that the first thing he would do when he gets to Heaven was to ask God why he chose a farm boy from North Carolina to preach to so many people.
He said only God knows the answer.
Thanks be to God.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear Sundays.