The Rev. Billy Graham , the Christian evangelist whose worldwide crusades and role as adviser to decades of U.S. presidents made him one of the best known religious figures of his time, died Wednesday at age 99 at his home in Montreat, N.C.
Graham, who had been in ill health for a number of years, was regularly listed in polls as one of the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World.” His Christian crusades took him from the frenzy of Manhattan to isolated African villages and according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website, he preached to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history.
The BGEA put his lifetime audience at nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories, with “hundreds of millions more” viewing him on television, video, film and webcasts. “My one purpose in life,” he said, “is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.”
William Franklin Graham Jr. was born Nov. 7, 1918 and raised on a dairy farm in Charlotte, N.C. At 15, he made his personal commitment to Christ at a revival meeting in Charlotte. After attending Bob Jones College and the Florida Bible Institute, Graham was ordained a Southern Baptist clergyman in 1939.
In 1943, he graduated from Wheaton College, where he met fellow student Ruth McCue Bell, daughter of a medical missionary, who had spent the first 17 years of her life in China. They married in August 1943 and had five children, 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. Ruth Graham died in June 2007 after 64 years of marriage.
Graham vaulted to national prominence with his 1948 Los Angeles crusade, scheduled for three weeks and extended to eight. Subsequent crusades in various cities around the globe also lasted far longer than scheduled – in New York, he ran nightly for four months at Madison Square Garden in 1957.
Through the BGEA he conducted his weekly “Hour of Decision” radio program and published “Decision” Magazine as well as producing television programs for Christian networks. In addition, Graham wrote 33 books, including his autobiography “Just As I Am.” His last book, “Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, And Our Life Beyond The Now” was published in 2015.
In the 1960s, he ardently opposed segregation, refusing to speak to segregated audiences. “The ground at the foot of the cross is level,” he once said, “and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”
Graham also was noted for consulting and praying with every U.S. president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, who in April 2010 visited Graham at his mountaintop cabin in North Carolina. He also met with President Harry Truman in what was initially a contentious meeting after Graham spoke to the press, but the two men later viewed the episode as a humorous incident.
Graham presided over the graveside services for President Lyndon Johnson in 1973 and spoke at the funeral of President Richard Nixon in 1994. On September 14, 2001 he led a national prayer service at Washington National Cathedral after the 9/11 attacks. He and his wife were both awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1966.
He remained active well into his 70s but in recent years had been slowed by Parkinson’s Disease, which he’s had since 1992, and other medical problems.
As a musician and a tour manager I have met most of the rock stars, but no one impressed me more than Billy Graham. I attended his crusade at the San Diego Stadium, when the band “Third Day” opened for him a number of years ago. I went back stage to meet him, but unfortunately, the line was too long to wait since I had a tour that was leaving the U.S. the next day.
A couple years later I landed at the Beijing Airport in China with the artist Kitaro. We sat on the Tarmac for 7 hours while customs went through our sound and lighting equipment matching all the serial numbers to our carnet’. Through an interpreter, I asked them if they were this thorough with all foreigners. They said, yes, everyone with one exception – “Dr. Graham,” his equipment planes go through the same inspections, but in less that 1 hour, “we simply trust him.”