The evangelist Billy Graham died today at the age of 99.
My first job out of college was working for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). Once upon a time I had a blog about Billy Graham and tried to write a biography. I still have a box of Billy Graham memorabilia (“Billyobilia”?) from the waning days of the BGEA before it moved to North Carolina.
I’m captivated by Graham’s transition from fiery preacher to loving grandfather. I find his comfort and then estrangement with political power to be both inspiring and troubling.
I am sometimes bothered by the seeming simplicity of Billy Graham’s message or the emotional manipulation of plinky music and a stadium full of peer pressure. But that’s also the inherent contradiction of the gospel. It’s a simple message, but a lifetime journey. It’s the already but not yet.
In short, Billy Graham led a fascinating life.
As part of my research in working on a biography, I put together a list of 25 curious facts about Billy Graham. Since little ever came of that research, it seems worthwhile to share it today.
25 Curious Facts About Billy Graham
- As a senior in high school, a young Billy Graham found himself in a dark classroom with a girl who begged Graham to make love to her. Instead of rounding the bases, Graham made like Joseph and ran away.
- In 1937 Billy Graham fell in love with Emily Cavanaugh and proposed to her in the summer. She had to think about it and eventually said yes in the fall. But by 1938 she was having second thoughts and in the spring she dumped Billy Graham for one of his classmates, Charles Massey.
- Graham gave a Ted Talk in 1998.
- Graham once went skinny-dipping with President Lyndon Johnson.
- In 1993 Graham was taken into custody by the Mexican Navy while wearing a bathing suit he borrowed from President George H.W. Bush.
- Billy Graham served as a pastor to Western Springs Baptist Church in Western Springs, Ill., for a year in the 1940s. It was the only time he would officially pastor a local congregation.
- In 1948 Graham became the youngest college president in history as president of Northwestern College in Minneapolis.
- As early as the 1950s Billy Graham held integrated crusades, at one point tearing down ropes that separated the white seating from the black seating, causing the head usher to resign in protest.
- Martin Luther King Jr. insisted Billy Graham call him “Mike.”
- Billy Graham was knighted in 2001.
- As a child, he went to church only “grudgingly” and the minister at his family’s church reminded him of a mortician.
- The first time Billy Graham shared his testimony was with a group of about 10 prisoners. The experience “reinforced my conviction that I would never become a preacher.”
- Billy Graham attended Bob Jones University for one semester and upon leaving, Bob Jones Sr. predicted nothing but failure for Billy Graham.
- Graham’s first formal sermon lasted eight minutes and included all four sermons he had prepared.
- At Florida Bible Institute Billy Graham would paddle out to a small island in the Hillsborough River to practice his sermons and preach to the alligators and birds, like a St. Francis of Florida.
- In 1964 Billy Graham’s name came up as a potential presidential candidate. His wife, Ruth, put a stop to any consideration of forsaking his call to evangelism: “If you run, I don’t think the country will elect a divorced president.”
- Throughout his life Billy Graham participated in 9 presidential inaugurations. In 2009 Graham passed on the hat he often wore to those inaugurations to Rick Warren, who offered a prayer at Barack Obama’s inauguration.
- On his wedding night, Billy Graham had trouble falling asleep in the bed, so he crawled out of bed and fell asleep on the floor. In the morning Ruth woke up to find her new husband gone—it took her a few minutes to find him curled up on the floor, sound asleep.
- During World War II, the U.S. Army rejected Billy Graham for the chaplaincy program because he was three pounds underweight.
- Billy Graham left on a trip the day his first child was born, dismissing Ruth’s insistence that the baby would come soon and he should stay home. Billy predicted it would take another two or three weeks. Virginia “Gigi” Graham was born that evening.
- In the 1970s Billy attended various rock festivals, protests, and love-ins in order to better understand and connect with young people. To maintain anonymity, he attended “incognito” (meaning he donned a hat, sunglasses, and a big sweater).
- He always tried to minimize his own prominence, to the point that he strongly resisted naming his organization after himself in 1950, and when the Billy Graham Library opened in 2007 he declared there was “too much Billy Graham.”
- Billy Graham once loaned money to then-president Richard Nixon. When the offering plate was passed at a 1970 crusade in Knoxville, Tenn., the president didn’t have any money on him, but Graham discreetly slipped the president a few bills. A few months later Nixon repaid the loan.
- In 1993 Billy Graham participated in an AOL chat session, his first foray into the world of online evangelism.
- Billy Graham was one of the few Americans who could get mail simply addressed, “Billy Graham, America.”