In the early days of Youth for Christ all of us young speakers wanted to be like Billy – the star preacher with the stylish double-breasted gabardine suits, the flowery ties, the piercing blue eyes, the stabbing finger, the voice with a touch of Carolina thunder.
When he preached, there was such power and passion and when he gave his invitation to come to Jesus so many always came forward. Almost always.
But not when he came to my hometown in Canada to speak at our youth rally. The place was packed. His message was powerful. But when he invited people to get up and come forward no one moved.
I was so disappointed. We had been sure all of our friends would respond. Billy saw my emotion, came over, put his arm around me, and said, “I am going to pray for you and if you stay humble God will use you.”
That night he also pointed me to Wheaton College, where I met and fell in love with his sister Jean. On a cold December night in the old, old Calvary Church, he married us – with one slip of the tongue: he said we had exchanged “wings”! And I literally took “wings” as I preached around the world with him for 30 years.
He was as commanding a presence in person as in the pulpit. After one of his crusades he would come to the family home on Park Road. Mother Graham would serve her special Russian tea. And he would captivate us with his stories of where he had been and whom he had met.
For years he was named as one of the world’s most admired men. Yet when he name-dropped about famous people he’d been with he was like a farm boy in awe of where he had been and the people he had met.
Now I think more of the personal Billy than the public one. To his family he was son and big brother Billy, and he showed in so many ways that he cared.
My wife Jeanie was stricken with life-threatening polio in the epidemic summer of 1944 when Billy and Ruth had just arrived in Chicago for his first pastorate. When he learned she was seriously ill he immediately turned around and made the same long drive back to Charlotte to be with her.
Our daughter Debbie had a recurrence of breast cancer (from which she has fully recovered). At Mayo Clinic in Florida she was walking down a hall toward a test she feared might show the cancer had spread. Ahead she saw an old man sitting in a wheel chair. It was her uncle Billy. He was there for a checkup and had found out exactly where she would be. She ran to him, they hugged and cried, and he prayed. Later at his Montreat home she sat on his bed and said, “Uncle Billy, for me that was the best sermon you ever preached. It wasn’t you on a platform, me in the audience. It was you in a wheelchair. I in my fear. Both of us on the same level, with our needs.”
And he was human. Over the years he had many health problems, and he could be a bit of a hypochondriac. We joked that if he had a hangnail it could be a major threat! It was, I suspect, one way a public man could allow himself to be ordinary.
It was poignant to see this man who touched the world, spending his days in bed or in a wheelchair, unable to see or hear much. Yet when we stood by him and sang one of his crusade songs his lips would move in time with our song.
Not too long ago I asked if, when the time comes, he would like his sister to say something at his service. “I would be honored,” he slowly replied.
What would he like her to say? He paused, then said, “He tried to do what he thought he should.”
And what was that? In that subdued, aging voice, he said, “Preach the gospel.”
That is the Billy I knew. That is what he did. And that is what he lived.
Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.