Billy Graham: From Crusades to the cafeteria

I would not wanted to have been the bus driver who dared him. If you are one of millions who tuned into the televised Billy Graham crusades over the years, you surely remember his altar call at the sermon’s conclusion. Wavering souls were reassured, “If you came in a bus, it will wait.” Cranking an engine at that moment would have been a sacrilege, and I wouldn’t bet against those piercing blue eyes stopping a carburetor cold.

The Rev. Billy Graham’s passing on Feb. 21, at age 99, has unleashed much reflection and sentiment. At age 16, I attended his April, 1972 crusade in Charlotte. Exact details escape me, but I recall being impressed by the organization. Little was left to chance.

Graham crusades of the time followed a basic formula. The soothing Cliff Barrows emceed as a notable person from the community offered personal testimony. No crusade was complete without George “Bev” Shea’s rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” and/or Ethel Waters’ soulful “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”

Then came Billy Graham’s powerful message.

Stanzas of “Just As I Am” beckoned folks to Graham’s altar. While respondents would not have a personal moment with the Rev. Graham, there were plenty of trained counselors ready to guide individuals through the experience, finally directing each to form a relationship with a local church.

There would be mild controversies along the way. News accounts from a few years ago revealed both Grahams, Ruth and Billy, desiring burial around Montreat near their beloved mountains. Following the opening of Charlotte’s Billy Graham library, both Grahams reluctantly acquiesced to strong nudging for interment there.

Chance personal encounters with the evangelist left memorable impressions, too. My own brother, Billy, was in cafeteria management in Asheville for many years. Early one afternoon about 20 years ago, a tall, older gentleman in a sports – logoed ball cap asked Billy for help after passing through the serving line.

Billy showed the Rev. Graham to a booth, then joined him for several moments at Graham’s request. It was a rare occasion that Billy Graham was unaccompanied by an associate. Though happy to talk with people in public, he explained that his chances of actually finishing a meal were better if he had someone with him during meals in a restaurant!

Just two guys named Billy sharing a table on an Asheville afternoon.

Douglas Smith is a resident of Rockingham and frequent writer of letters to the editor.