ASHEVILLE — Big names from politics, religion and TV joined more than 800 others Thursday night to help wish Billy Graham a happy 95th birthday.
But when the Charlotte-born evangelist briefly took the microphone at the end of the private party in a giant hotel ballroom, he acknowledged not the celebrities, but members of his family and one longtime colleague who is almost as old as Graham.
“Cliff, I want to thank you,” Graham told Cliff Barrows, who directed the choirs during more than 50 years of Graham crusades around the world. “This celebration is partly for you as well. And I want to thank you for all that you have meant to me through all the years. God bless you and love you.”
Barrows, sitting nearby, returned the love, his voice cracking as he told Graham that he thanked God “for every remembrance of you. And I praise God for the journey we’ve had together.”
Speaking to Graham and the crowd, Barrows also recounted something Graham told him 68 years ago: “Cliff … let’s pray the Lord will keep us together till he calls us home or till he comes again.”
For decades, Graham, Barrows and George Beverly Shea, the crusades’ vocalist, made up the closest of teams. Shea died earlier this year at age 104. He, Graham and Barrows will all be buried on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.
Until that emotional moment, most of the buzz at the Omni Grove Park Inn was about all the celebrities who had spilled into the ballroom to honor Graham. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin told the crowd that her Catholic mother had become a Graham fan and brought the entire family to Christ.
“Billy Graham, we want you around for another 95 years,” she said. “We need for him to stick around for that next great awakening that our country and world needs.”
Graham’s son, Franklin, who runs the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was the evening’s master of ceremonies. And the celebrities who turned out appeared to mirror his conservative GOP politics. During the dinner, he sat between real estate tycoon Donald Trump, who the younger Graham touted as a presidential candidate in 2012, and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Fox News Network, a favorite of conservatives.
After a screening of a 28-minute DVD featuring new words of inspiration from Billy Graham, his son thanked Murdoch, whose Fox News Network aired the program nationally Thursday night.
Graham said Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News for Murdoch, told him he had gotten questions about why a news network would run such religious programming.
“And I thought, this is the greatest news in the world: that God loves sinners,” he said. “And God is using the greatest news channel in America to get this news out.”
At times, the event seemed like a Fox News production, featuring many meeting of the network’s current and former commentators. Besides Palin, Glenn Beck was spotted at one of the tables.
Greta Van Susteren, who hosts a show on Fox News, was the one who urged those at the party to light their birthday cupcakes and sing “Happy Birthday.”
Gov. Pat McCrory took the stage to celebrate Billy Graham’s humility, saying politicians could learn from him.
And the party also drew N.C. GOP congressmen Robert Pittenger, Patrick McHenry and Mark Meadows.
After the news media interviewed some of the celebrities – including Palin, musician Ricky Skaggs and McCrory – the birthday dinner began with the entrance of Billy Graham in a wheelchair.
Wearing a gray pin-striped suit and a blue sweater, he acknowledged the standing ovation by moving his hands. Pushing the wheelchair was his grandson, Edward Graham, who wore his Army Ranger uniform.
In his brief comments, Billy Graham also said how proud he was of his grandson who served in Iraq.
Graham also saluted his brother-in-law and fellow evangelist Leighton Ford, who married Graham’s sister Jean. They live in Charlotte.
And though Graham’s fragile health was obvious from his weathered face, he did sing along on “Happy Birthday” and smiled when all the candles were blown out.