His blazing blue eyes burned right through me.
“Oh, Lord,” I thought to myself, intending no pun. “He sees every sin I’ve ever committed. And they have been considerable.”
I was looking into the face of Billy Graham and it seemed like I was looking at Jesus. It was in summer of 1957 and I had just joined the sports staff at the Asheville Times for my first daily newspaper job.
One afternoon colorful sports editor Al Geremonte said, “Hey kid, I’ve got an assignment for you. Billy Graham has come home to Montreat from his crusade at Yankee Stadium in New York. He’s playing golf tomorrow at Grove Park Inn Country Club. Go out and interview him.”
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I shuddered. The thought of that frightened me. I said, “No, no, no! I can’t write religion, I just do sports.”
Al replied: “The last time I checked, golf was a sport. You go out to Grove Park and interview him. I’m going to send (veteran photographer) Malcolm Gamble with you. He knows Billy quite well and will help you out.”
I had no choice but to go.
I hyperventilated through the night, dreading the next day. I met Malcolm at the paper and we drove to Grove Park Inn. I was searching all the way for an excuse to get out of this. I couldn’t think of any.
I went to the pro shop and asked the young guy in there if the Rev. Graham had arrived. He said, “Are you Higgins?” I nodded yes.
He said, “Preacher Graham is in the locker room putting on his golf shoes. He said to tell you he would meet you outside.”
I walked out and was pacing back and forth when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned, and there he was.
He said, “Are you Tommy Higgins?”
I weakly replied, “Yes.”
He immediately saw how nervous I was, took me by the arm and reassured me.
“It’ll be OK, young man,” he said. “Just ask me what you want to know.”
Strangely, I don’t remember a word of the interview, or anything I wrote for the paper the next day. But I can almost recall lap-by-lap the Western North Carolina 500 that I covered few weeks later at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway.
But one thing I do remember very vividly is the kindness and patience that Billy Graham showed me that day 61 years ago.
Tom Higgins is a retired Observer motorsports writer and a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.