The world took a pause from its troubles and helped lay to rest Billy Graham, who died last Wednesday at the age of 99. Many wistfully agreed that we will never see his like again.
We have many fine people and many fine preachers. And we will continue to have them. And I hesitate to say we’ll never have another like Graham.
But North Carolina’s most famous favorite son did singularly touch our nation and our world in a way and with a style that probably will not be repeated. As he proclaimed the Gospel he had our collective ear as no one else did.
Upon hearing the news, my thoughts veered away from the grandiose pontifications on TV and in newspapers about an American saint. Instead, my thoughts drifted back to a Billy Graham, a fellow tarheel, wearing blue jeans and rocking and chatting on his front porch at his home in Montreat just this side of Asheville.
The year was 1996. The Graham organization was about a month away from starting a crusade at the big NFL football stadium in Charlotte.
The Charlotte area press received an invitation to Graham’s home for a pre-crusade press conference. Graham, then 77, had never had the press to his home before, we were told.
The boss gave me the nod to go.
Like most of you, I grew up here in the hometown watching Graham on TV. Even though I was pretty young I liked Graham’s preaching and was glad to see so many born-again believers step forward at his crusades to accept Christ.
As a kid I’d heard Graham lived somewhere up in the North Carolina mountains. One time someone tried to point out Graham’s house from I-40 on the way to Asheville (wrong, the house is not visible from the freeway).
Another time I spent a weekend at Montreat College, where buddies speculated just where the community’s famous preacher lived.
Now with the newspaper assignment I was going to find out.
I had been intrigued by the notion of Graham preaching to packed stadia around the world, then heading home to North Carolina and putting on his jeans one leg at a time like the rest of us.
Riding up the mountain I wondered: What was the real Billy Graham like, at home, away from the bright lights?
Our directions took us from Black Mountain up into the Montreat cove, and before reaching the stone entranceway to the college we took a left at an indiscreet house well hidden from the road by Leland firs.
The green-painted, wood-frame house turned out to be a reception office with a small parking lot in back for guests. You’d never notice the place from the road.
My newspaper crew got out of the parking lot, and up walked Paul Cameron the WBTV, Channel 3, news anchor from Charlotte who at the time was on his very first news field assignment after moving over from the sports anchor desk.
“Isn’t this something?” said Cameron, like a star-struck boy scout. Rookie, I thought.
The trip taught me the press can get its head turned by celebrity just like anybody else.
The reception house had things you’d expect, like poster photos of Graham and information about the Evangelistic Association. Outside, three new white vans seating about a dozen each waited to drive the press corps up to the Graham home.
The home is on a hillside in the Montreat gorge. A one-lane, steep, paved driveway took us up what they call Little Piney Cove about a mile through thick woods.
We slowed as we passed through a gate in a 10-foot or so chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and with green covering like the tarp used as wind-breaks on tennis courts.
The host told us that in the 1960s the FBI paid a visit to Graham and insisted on the installation of the imposing fence that surrounds the property for protection.
The host was vague on protection from what. Billy Graham at first refused the fence — who wants to live behind a fence, prison-style — but the FBI insisted, we were told.
A picture flashed through my mind, of the FBI roughing up Billy Graham: “We have an offer you cannot refuse.”
Just when you think you’re never going to get there, the forest opens into a clearing, and there’s the Graham place. A front yard, about a half-acre, overlooks the beautiful Swannanoa Valley below. A great view.
I had heard that Graham had a cabin in the mountains. I had thought of something like the pioneer relic Brinegar cabin at Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I found a sprawling home with square logs a foot thick or more. You can find photos of it on the internet. It’s very nice.
Perhaps it was against the ground rules, but I stepped around back to a wing behind the front portion and saw a sprawling, two-story family quarters that looked like a mountain conference-center dormitory. Wood siding, but no foot-thick square logs.
Rows of metal folding chairs were arranged in the front yard. When we all were settled and the TV cameras set up and rolling, someone went inside and brought out Billy with Ruth Graham, who died in 2007.
Billy Graham wore a light-blue denim jacket and jeans — no suit or tie. I learned the outfit had come from legendary country singer Johnny Cash, and Graham still liked to wear it around the house even though the new had worn off.
The outfit looked exactly like an outfit Dad liked to wear in the months before he died, in 1990. His did not come from Johnny Cash.
The Grahams sat on two antique-style rocking chairs given by President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. When Billy Graham sat, tall and lanky like Dad, Graham crossed his legs just like Dad. The similarities struck me.
I remember two things from the press conference.
First, Billy Graham said he would have been just as happy being an unknown pastor of a small country church down in the valley.
I’ve thought about his statement often since. Graham said it with sincerity and I believed him. But I’ve wondered how much he had really thought about it.
A church pastor’s life is not an easy one, and in his autobiography Graham recounted pastoring a church briefly in Chicago in the 1940s. He intimated he did not like it.
Second, Billy Graham stated one regret: he spent hardly any time with his young children because of his preaching and other ministry work away from home. I’d never heard that from him before, though I did hear it from him afterward.
The more I think about that, the more remarkable it strikes me. Celebrities don’t admit they were poor fathers.
After the press conference, we were invited through the front door and into the Grahams’ den. It was not large but was nicely furnished with Persian-style floor rugs.
I noticed Mrs. Graham beamed with particular pride when asked about the big fireplace that dominates the den. She had it special-made with the title of the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in the original German words carved into the mantle. It’s impressive.
From the den an open door allowed a peak into the dining room with a nice, long table that may have been of mahogany wood with high-back chairs. I’ve seen photos of celebrities like Muhammad Ali at that table with the Grahams.
The TV people recorded interviews with the Grahams seated on the big sofa in front of the fireplace in the den. A TV reporter from Greenville, S.C., whom I did not know gushed like a groupie during her interview; she couldn’t seem to stop saying how wonderful the Grahams were.
The Grahams sat respectfully and didn’t let on if they thought it all overboard. I thought it unprofessional.
By contrast, Debi Faubion, who retired as a news anchor at WSOC, Channel 9, in Charlotte in 2009 after an admirable 19 years there, played her time on the couch straight and was the admirable professional.
I’ve had a long time to ponder my question from 1996: what was the real Billy Graham like? Of course, two hours of a carefully staged press conference offered not nearly enough insight to answer that question well.
But I do offer this answer: Billy Graham was somewhere in the middle between the stereotypical world-stage celebrity and a denim-wearing good-ol’-boy tarheel.
Graham certainly lived a charmed life. He made a good living. He lived nicely.
He came across as cordial and respectful. His house reminded me of the old Chatham home along Klondike Road north of Elkin. Both houses are nice and expansive and set off from the road, though they are of different styles.
Graham did not live in a run-down Methodist parsonage, but neither did he live in a millionaire’s mansion like T.D. Jakes or some other TV preachers. I’d say Graham kept it pretty much in the middle of the road.
After the press conference someone said we reporters could line up and shake Graham’s hand. I thought about it. It would be unprofessional. It smacked of celebrity worship.
But what the heck, others were rushing to get in line, except for reporter Tim Funk of The Charlotte Observer and an Observer cameraman, both of whom stood off to the side. They probably had some company rule against it.
I went ahead and got in back of the line. I was retiring from the business anyway to spend more time here in hometown. So why not?
I had one shot to say something to Billy Graham, and while standing in line my mind raced, searching for the best thing to say.
I managed to choke out, “Thank you for all you’ve done.” Graham seemed a bit taken aback. After all the admiring compliments he probably didn’t expect a thank you.
What I meant was thank you, Billy Graham, for keeping your faith in Christ and in your calling. Thank you for the integrity you maintained throughout your ministry. And thank you for preaching the gospel, and for doing so much good in the world.
That’s where I found the real Billy Graham.
Would you like to read more? I’ve posted reprints of my previews of the 1996 Billy Graham crusade in Charlotte on my website, https://www.facebook.com/AllRoadsShouldLeadToStateRoad. It includes my take on Graham’s life and influence. Check it out.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.