Mourners gather: ‘We’re lucky … to have lived in the time of Billy Graham’

A parade of mourners filed by the casket of evangelist Billy Graham on a soggy Monday in Charlotte, paying their respects to a local son who went on to become America’s most famous preacher and kicking off a week of events commemorating his remarkable life.

Visitors, dressed in everything from Carolina Panthers gear to suits and ties, waited patiently for their chance to view Graham’s closed casket in a tribute held on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library. The guests included former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.

Graham, who died last week at his home in Montreat at age 99, will continue to lie in repose in Charlotte on Tuesday, when former President Bill Clinton is expected to pay his respects. On Wednesday and Thursday, Graham’s body will lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol before returning home for Friday’s funeral service, which is expected to be attended by President Donald Trump.

Charles Connor III of Catawba County got up at 4 a.m. to be one of the first members of the public to file past the casket.

“It’s just history,” said Connor, 60, an insurance broker. “We’re lucky in this area to have lived in the time of Billy Graham.”

Connor and his wife went with their children to Graham’s 1996 crusade in Charlotte.

He said he had to return to the city Monday morning to pay his respects.

“I heard someone say that Billy Graham preached to more people than the (12 apostles) combined,” Connor said. “So what excuse would I have to not come here? None.”

Graham is lying in repose in the home where he lived as a boy. It was built in 1927 on the Graham family’s dairy farm on Park Road and moved to the library grounds in 2006. Shuttle buses will take people to the site from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

On Monday, Roy Graham, one of Billy’s grandsons, greeted well-wishers in the family homestead and heard stories about how his famous grandfather’s preaching had changed their lives.

Some of them, Graham said, can still remember “the date, the time and the place where my grandfather preached and they gave their life to Christ.”

He said he’d been told that 600 to 700 people had filed by the casket by mid-morning. The news media were also out in force at the library Monday, including a TV crew from Hong Kong.

People arriving at the library could hear constant hammering and drilling as workers in the nearby parking lot readied a massive tent for Friday’s funeral. About 2,300 people will attend the invitation-only service.

Former President Barack Obama is not planning to attend, The Associated Press reported. Obama tweeted last week after Graham’s death that the evangelist was “a humble servant who prayed for so many” and who gave hope to generations.

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse employees pay their respects to Rev. Billy Graham on Monday at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. Graham died on Wednesday at the age of 99. Rev. Graham will lie in repose on Monday and Tuesday at the site. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

‘Staple in our lives’

Graham’s wooden casket, with a cross nailed on the front, is on a black bier in what was once the living room of his family’s home. A cross-shaped arrangement of lilies is on a stand next to the casket.

There was a respectful silence as people walked through.

One woman paused by the roped-off casket and held her right hand up the way people do in church when they pray.

The living room and other parts of the house look as they did in the 1930s, with old-fashioned furniture and lamps, which were lit on Monday.

Graham’s wooden casket, with a cross nailed on the front, is on a black bier in what was once the living room of his family’s home on Park Road. A cross-shaped arrangement of lilies is on a stand next to the casket. Tim Funk tfunk@charlotteobserver.com

In an adjacent room is the desk Graham’s mother used to keep track of the business side of the family’s dairy farm. There’s a typewriter and an old-fashioned adding machine.

The walls of the rooms are filled with framed photos of Graham’s family, past and present. In a small desk, behind glass, are yellowed newspaper clippings about Graham and his wife, Ruth, who died in 2007.

Aaron and Paris Greer, a brother and sister who grew up in Charlotte and now live in Minnesota, were at the library Monday to honor Graham.

Aaron Greer

“He’s a staple in our lives,” said Paris Greer. “He’s Billy Graham – there’s nobody like him.”

Added Aaron Greer, a truck driver: “He preached to all races, to all people.”

Nancy Young, a native of Guatemala who now lives in Virginia, said she came because Graham and his library spurred her spiritual growth.

During a visit to the Charlotte library in 2011, “the Holy Spirit touched me. My life was radically changed.”

Young came with her friend Angie Naish, an evangelist from West Virginia. When Naish paused at Graham’s casket, she said she felt “an overwhelming sense of peace but also a greater urgency to continue his legacy by going out to preach the Gospel.”

Nancy Young

‘Strong man of God’

Driving in from Stanley in Gaston County were Charles and Alice Jessen. Both graduated from Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school near Chicago.

Charles Jessen, a retired Presbyterian minister, even wore his Wheaton College ball cap Monday.

Graham spoke at Jessen’s graduation ceremony in 1962.

And in 1957, Jessen attended Graham’s famous crusades at New York’s Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium.

“He was vigorous,” Jessen said of Graham in his prime. “He had an impact on my life. I was a believer, but he challenged me (through his preaching) that my heart would do what God wanted me to do. He was a mentor in the distance.”

Charles Jessen

Alexander Dancy, 8, also also got to see Graham’s casket.

“I wanted to honor him,” said Alexander, a third-grader at Selwyn Elementary who wore a Carolina Panthers shirt. “He was a strong man of God. He deserved to go to heaven.”

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker