Billy Graham

Remembering Graham: Tommy Tomlinson’s 2007 column about ‘a lumberjack for God’

Graham at a microphone in 1969, in New York.
Graham at a microphone in 1969, in New York. NYT

This story was first published June 1, 2007.

They helped him up from his special chair. His assistant placed a walker in front of him. He had maybe 10 feet to the microphone.

For so many years he devoured that space in a couple of steps, diving right into the sermon, chopping the air with his hands like a lumberjack for God.

It made him admired and it made him famous. Three ex-presidents under the white tent on this Thursday afternoon and he was the one everybody came to see.

Billy Graham at the mike.

Maybe the last time.

He did not stride. He took small, stiff steps, like a robot. The walker scraped the stage. People kept cheering but for longer than they expected to.

He had a speech prepared, 12 clean paragraphs in large type. They had passed it out in advance. But his publicist had said: “He may or may not deliver those remarks.”

And here Billy Graham came to the microphone, no notes in his hands.

Graham, amid presidents, at the 2007 dedication of the Billy Graham Library. DIEDRA LAIRD Observer file photo

Instead, he said:

“I feel terribly small and humbled by it all.”

It is hard to think of him this way. Small. Frail. Nearly deaf and fighting Parkinson’s and 88 years old.

You want to tell him it’s fine to sit down. Just wave and accept the cheers and go home.

But he grips the lectern a little tighter.

No notes.

“My whole life has been to please the Lord and to honor Jesus, not to see me or to think of me,” he says.

Of course they thought of him anyway.

The former presidents – Carter, Bush, Clinton – came to praise him. Bush and Clinton could not finish their words without choking back tears.

His son Franklin, the main heir to Billy’s global ministry, could not decide whether to call him “my father” or “Daddy” or “Billy Graham.”

More than 1,500 people in the crowd sweated and cheered and sang “How Great Thou Art,” led by George Beverly Shea, 98 years old.

And behind the stage is the official reason everybody came, the Billy Graham Library. His family says the building is a ministry and the glory is God’s. But it serves as a museum and the history is Billy’s.

Inside you can follow him from the Charlotte farm where he grew up to the first big crusade in Los Angeles to the sermons all over the world. As the video clips pass through the decades you can see Graham age, his hair going from dark to gray to white, the hands cupping the air instead of chopping it.

And now here he is live, his voice with a high tone at the edges, the way you talk when you have to work to breathe.

But no notes. Looking hard at the crowd now.

“This building behind me is just a building,” he says. “It’s an instrument. It’s a tool for the Gospel.”

He says he worries about his wife, Ruth, bedridden at their home in the mountains. They have two rooms with a bathroom in between. He spends much of his day checking in on her.

In his prepared speech, the one he didn’t give, he wrote: I know that my time here on earth is limited.

The Lord is a mystery. The Bible says Methuselah lived 969 years. Billy Graham might get only a tenth of that.

Here, in front of the crowd and the cameras, he has five minutes.

And at the end, the man who has prayed with so many, has prayed for so many, asks for a favor. I don’t remember him asking it before.

He is speaking without notes, his voice clear now, and he says:

“I need your prayers.”

He thanks everyone for coming and he turns away from the applause, white hair glowing in the sun.

His assistant puts the walker in front of him and points him toward the chair. And Billy Graham begins the journey to the place where he can rest.