Religion

As Billy Graham approaches 98, son Franklin explains why they’re done with big parties

Billy Graham: 'God's Ambassador'

For decades, Charlotte native Billy Graham was perhaps America’s most famous religious figure, someone who could draw hundreds of thousands to evangelistic “crusades,” someone picked by president after president to pray at inaugurations. If Americ
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For decades, Charlotte native Billy Graham was perhaps America’s most famous religious figure, someone who could draw hundreds of thousands to evangelistic “crusades,” someone picked by president after president to pray at inaugurations. If Americ

Billy Graham will turn 98 on Monday.

In Charlotte, the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte will have complimentary cake for guests. They’ll also be able to sign a birthday banner for the world-famous evangelist, who was born in 1918 on a dairy farm near what is now Park Road Shopping Center.

How’s he doing?

“Not great. He’s 98,” son Franklin Graham recently told the Observer.

Still living in his mountaintop home in Montreat, “he's real quiet. Doesn’t say much,” the younger Graham said. “Can't see. His mind is clear. ... But he speaks in sentences of one word.”

Three years ago, more than 800 people – including celebrities from the worlds of TV, politics and religion – gathered at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville to wish Graham a happy 95th birthday.

But Franklin Graham said not to expect any more big celebrations like that, even if his father reaches 100.

“It’s a party every Sunday when I go see him because he’s made it through another week,” Franklin Graham said. “At 98, you count the days and weeks. I don’t think we’ll have any more big parties. Those days are over with.”

As for this year’s presidential race, Billy Graham “knows who’s running and that kind of stuff,” his son said, but there are no real conversations with him about it. “He’s 98.”

Don’t expect Billy Graham to pose for any election-year photos with Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“Daddy’s not in a position to have those kinds of visits anymore,” his son said.

In the final weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican Mitt Romney stopped at Billy Graham’s home in Montreat, where he visited with the revered evangelist. The photo of him with Billy and Franklin Graham got wide circulation and may have helped Romney, a Mormon, win over enough evangelical Christian voters to narrowly beat President Barack Obama in North Carolina.

Days before that 2012 vote, the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which Franklin Graham now heads, also took out full-page ads in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and many other newspapers. Featuring a photo of Billy Graham, the ad included a quote attributed to him: “I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms.”

Though Romney’s name was not mentioned, it was an implicit endorsement of him and other Republicans who opposed same-sex marriage and abortion.

Helping to foot the bill for that ad: The Donald J. Trump Foundation, which contributed $100,000 at Franklin Graham’s request, he told the Observer.

Graham said he plans no such ads as the 2016 presidential campaign wraps up.

“I can reach more people on Facebook and it’s free,” he said. His Facebook posts reach up to 25 million people, he said.

In honor of his father’s upcoming birthday, Graham did recently post photos and a video from the 95th birthday party on his Facebook page. Both visuals prominently feature images and clips of Trump, who is now the Republican candidate for president, and N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican running for re-election this year.

Franklin Graham has become an outspoken, often controversial conservative voice, so most of those who showed up for that birthday party in Asheville were prominent Republicans like Sarah Palin and Fox News figures such as owner Rubert Murdoch.

Democrats Bill and Hillary Clinton were also invited, but didn’t attend.

Billy Graham was a pastor to many presidents over the years. And in a 2007 interview with ABC News, Hillary Clinton – now the Democratic candidate for president – said that she turned to him during the sex scandal involving her husband and Monica Lewinsky.

“He was someone who could understand both Bill and me, and there aren’t many who can,” Clinton told ABC’s Charles Gibson, adding that Graham helped her decide to forgive and stay with Bill Clinton.

She said Graham gave her confidence “that what I was doing, no matter what the rest of the world thought, was right. Right for me, right for my family and right for the country. And I will never forget that.”

Franklin Graham told the Observer that his father treasured that 2013 gathering to fete him on his birthday.

“His 95th birthday party meant so much to him,” his son said. “He was just overwhelmed that that many people would come and greet him. People he’d known for years.”

Eat cake, sign banner

On Monday, from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., people who visit Charlotte’s Billy Graham Library, 4330 Westmont Drive, can sign a birthday banner for Billy Graham on his 98th birthday. While supplies last, the library will also offer slices of birthday cake. Tours of the library itself are free.

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