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Billy Graham at 90

The preacher to presidents has good days, but others when he doesn't stir from his bed. I know how to die, Graham has told friends, but nobody ever taught me how to grow old.

By Tim Funk
tfunk@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • Follow the life of the famous preacher
  • The Observer conducted telephone interviews with three of Billy Graham's children (Franklin, Anne and Gigi), with his sister and brother-in-law Jean and Leighton Ford and with friends and staff. Billy Graham also answered questions e-mailed to his staff.



For half a century, he trotted the globe, Bible in hand, a dashing, wavy-haired figure of history preaching to 210 million people in 185 countries.

Now nearing 90 – his birthday is Friday – Billy Graham spends his days in his mountaintop home in Montreat, relying on a walker to navigate the trek from bedroom to study. His voice is now soft, his hair snow-white. He's watched over around the clock by a nurse and a trusty golden retriever named Sam.

The world now comes to Graham, on CNN, Fox, a few newspapers and a trickle of guests.

Like so many others battling old age, the Charlotte-born Graham tires easily, naps often, is sometimes lonely and has great difficulty hearing. In conversation, his responses aren't as quick as they once were. Macular degeneration is slowly stealing his sight, denying him one of the chief pleasures of his life: reading the Bible.

A widower for more than a year, he still grieves daily, even hourly, for Ruth, his wife of nearly 64 years and the woman whose picture brightens the rooms in the house she designed and decorated.

But for all the loss, those around Graham say his mind remains sharp, his memory strong. And like the young preacher whose calendar was ever-full, the elderly Graham still prefers to focus on the future: on that day he'll see Ruth again in heaven and finally get to gaze on the face of Jesus, who he has served faithfully since his conversion at a Charlotte revival in 1934.

“I've discovered that just because we'll inevitably grow weaker physically as we get older, it doesn't mean we must grow weaker spiritually,” Graham, still the evangelist, said in response to questions e-mailed by the Observer. “Our eyes ought to be on eternity and heaven – on the things that really matter.”

He's ‘Daddy Bill,' ‘Billy Frank'

Around his house, Graham answers to “Daddy” whenever any of his five children visit and to “Daddy Bill” if any of his many grandchildren or great-grandchildren pop in.

He's “Billy Frank,” his boyhood name, when sister Jean Ford drives in from Charlotte.

And to his nurse, secretary, physical therapist and others who help him through each day, he's “Mr. Graham.”

He gets up between 6 and 7 a.m. and is in bed by 10 p.m., says son Franklin.

It's cereal, banana and eggs for breakfast and something equally simple for lunch: a pimento cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

When Graham goes to Asheville for doctor visits, he'll sometimes have lunch at TGI Friday's. He also likes the corn dogs at Sonic drive-in.

At 5:30 p.m. each day, the staff will ask him about dinner. Among his carry-out favorites: steak from Outback and shrimp from Red Lobster.

Working on a final book

Two or three days a week, a physical therapist comes in to work on balance and muscle retention.

The exercises are even more important since his fall in October while leaning over to pet Sam. Graham broke no bones, but he suffered painful bruises and was kept overnight at Mission Hospital in Asheville.

He keeps doggie treats near his bed and likes to throw them to his 100-pound friend.

Graham doesn't make much news anymore, but staying up on current events takes up much of his day.

He still takes the Observer, his hometown paper, but with failing eyesight, he can make out only the headlines. When they intrigue him – such as stories about his bank, Wachovia – he asks someone to read the article. He also likes any stories involving animals.

With the TV, he's a flipper – CNN, especially “Larry King Live,” or Fox News.

Graham's children say this longtime pastor to presidents is watching the race for the White House. He voted by absentee ballot. Nobody, including Graham, will say who he's pulling for. But daughter Gigi did say: He thinks Sarah Palin is mighty pretty.

Prayer, too, is part of Graham's daily ritual. He'll sometimes ask his nurse or a staffer to read him Bible passages.

Then, every Sunday at 11 a.m., Graham watches the service at First Baptist Church of Spartanburg on TV.

The author of many books, Graham is working – though slowly – on a final one, about aging. It's a subject that has become real to him and one he'd like to see churches better prepare their members for.

As a Christian, I know how to die, Graham has told family and friends, but nobody ever taught me how to grow old.

The tentative title of his last book: “Nearing Home.”

‘Christ and the Gospel'

It takes a lot out of Graham to have visitors. Straining to hear and see, he's ready for a rest after 30 minutes.

Still, he's a welcoming host.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain came by for a chat and photo op in June. Democrat Barack Obama was scheduled to stop by last month, son Franklin says, but Graham, who has good days and bad, had to cancel.

Graham also makes time for longtime colleagues and emerging Christian leaders. Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea, musical stars of the Graham crusades of old, visit every few months. Brother-in-law and evangelist Leighton Ford of Charlotte brought by Dennis Hollinger, president of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, co-founded by Graham.

What would you like the teachers and students at the school to emphasize? Hollinger asked.

Graham shot back without his normal hesitation: “Christ and the Gospel.”

Precious family prayer time

But it's Graham's time with family that is most precious, partly because he regrets being away for long periods in his preaching heyday.

Now, he'll ask daughter Anne, a Raleigh-based evangelist, to come close, read a Bible passage and give him a sermon.

Over Sunday lunches, he'll talk with son Franklin about his trip to North Korea and about the latest doings at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which his son heads.

And with sister Jean, born when Graham was 13, he'll reminisce about their parents on the Charlotte dairy farm.

He'll remind her how gentle their father was and how, after all these years, “I'd rather hear Daddy pray than anybody else in the world.”

Sometimes, Graham will say he now has more friends in heaven than on Earth.

Missing Ruth

He took it hard when wife Ruth died at 87 in June 2007. Daughter Anne, who started visiting every other week instead of once a month, says she was worried.

Then, one day, he turned a corner on his grieving path. The sparkle in his eyes returned.

Still, he feels her absence every day.

Daughter Gigi says the biggest picture of her mother is in Graham's bedroom, where he can see it every morning.

“I miss that lady so much,” he told Gigi. “Every once in a while, I think she's going to come right out of that picture.”

Graham doesn't travel much anymore, but when he does, it's usually to Charlotte to attend board meetings of the association that bears his name. On a visit in April, Graham asked to be driven to the adjacent Billy Graham Library grounds.

It was still daylight when he climbed out of the car and lowered himself into a wheelchair.

At the end of a cross-shaped walkway, he gazed on Ruth's gravesite for the first time since her burial.

Three times, he asked his staffers to read the message she chose for her headstone: “End of Construction – Thank you for your patience.”

Then they left him alone, to contemplate her final resting place – and, right next to it, his own.

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