From the Editor

Drescher: Admiring Billy Graham

john.drescher@newsobserver.comNovember 9, 2012 

Graham Hospitalized

FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2010 file photo, evangelist Billy Graham speaks to the media at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. Evangelist Billy Graham is improving as he recovers from bronchitis at a North Carolina hospital. Nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville reported that the 93-year-old Graham is resting comfortably and still is in stable condition. Doctors say they are encouraged by Graham's response to treatment. He had been admitted to the hospital early Sunday, Aug. 12. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond, File)

NELL REDMOND — ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Rev. Billy Graham celebrated his 94th birthday this week with his family at his home in Montreat.

“I never expected I would live this long, outliving my beloved wife Ruth as well as many friends and loved ones,” Graham said recently. “I believe God must still have a purpose for keeping me here, and I look forward to seeing what that might be.”

Graham uses a wheelchair and is plagued by problems with his hearing and sight. But Michael Gordon of The Charlotte Observer, which has covered Graham for more than 50 years, reported that Graham is involved in several book projects.

Graham has been in the news recently for newspaper ads purchased by his evangelical association, which is run by his older son, Franklin Graham. The ads ran in The News & Observer and in newspapers in other states where the presidential race was hotly contested.

In the ads, Billy Graham urged voters to back candidates who support biblical values, including marriage between a man and a woman, the protection of Israel and the sanctity of life.

For decades, ever since he was burned by his support for President Richard Nixon, Graham has stayed out of politics. The ads prompted some to accuse the younger Graham of using his father for his own political purposes.

I thought about Billy Graham recently for another reason. After the October death of former UNC system President Bill Friday, I wondered: Has there ever been a public figure in North Carolina whose personal style was so widely admired?

Friday was unfailingly friendly, polite, generous and gracious. Although he was a big shot – one of the leading figures of American higher education in the 20th century – he never acted liked it. He put people at ease. At his memorial service in Chapel Hill, it seemed each of the 750 people there had a personal story about him.

In answering my own question, I could come up with only one person: the Rev. Billy Graham.

Friday and Graham were born less than two years apart and grew up about 25 miles from each other – Graham near Charlotte, Friday in Dallas in Gaston County. They knew each other for more than 60 years. Friday introduced Graham when the evangelist held a five-day lecture series in Chapel Hill in 1982. Graham appeared on Friday’s television show, “North Carolina People,” in 1973, 1982 and 1994. In recent years, they continued to exchange Christmas cards.

Maybe it was something about where and when they were raised, but neither Friday nor Graham let success give him a big head. Each always seemed like a down-home North Carolinian. Each had plenty of chances to leave the state but chose to live here.

After Friday died, an admirer said, “He was just infused with a deep dose of old-fashioned decency.”

The same could be said of Graham. It was Graham who, at a crusade in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1951, removed a rope that separated blacks from whites. Six years later, he invited Martin Luther King Jr. to preach with him in New York City.

In the fine biography, “Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness,” author Marshall Frady interviewed many old friends and colleagues of Graham.

One was an especially close friend who had left the ministry and parted ways with Graham. He disagreed with Graham’s theology. Yet he said Graham was “an almost genetically nice guy. He was just born a nice guy. ...There’s not a mean or devious – or subtle – bone in his body. He is all goodwill.”

Frady didn’t gloss over what some viewed as Graham’s shortcomings. Some thought Graham’s theology was thin; others thought he should talk less and serve more. But Frady, a South Carolinian who died in 2004, concluded Graham was a fundamentally good man who believed in the potential goodness of others.

“Some touching sensation of benediction lingers on the way back down the mountain,” Frady wrote after visiting Graham. “It’s as if his simple presence has the effect of a kind of blessing. ...One is left with a surprising sense in him of an ineffable utter innocence, as clear and blameless as that crystalline mountain morning.”

I met with Graham only once, many years ago. Our interview lasted a half-hour. In person, he was softer and more vulnerable than on stage, where he preached with force. He’s been called the most effective evangelist since Paul. But sitting across from you, he could be your kind, elderly neighbor.

Plenty of people disagreed with Friday during his long public career and plenty of people have criticized Graham. But Friday and Graham consistently were decent men who embraced those on the opposite side. They were, to borrow the phrase from Graham’s old friend, all goodwill. In this era of divisiveness, there’s much to be learned from them.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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