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Tomlinson: 'Billy Graham Was One Of The First Prominent Southerners The World Saw'

Billy Graham will be laid to rest Friday at his library in Charlotte. Two former presidents have already paid their respects and President Trump is expected at the funeral today, along with 2,300 other family, friends, and dignitaries. Tommy Tomlinson, host of WFAE’s SouthBound podcast, shares his thoughts about Graham and reads from his 2007 Charlotte Observer column about the evangelist's impact. 

MARSHALL TERRY: For your podcast you speak to people who are from the South or who have spent a lot of time here and you talk about how the South shaped who they are. How did the South shape who Billy Graham was?

TOMMY TOMLINSON: First of all, it shaped him in the simplicity of his message. He grew up in a time and in an era in the South when those country preacher messages were the way that things got told. He took that method along with the message to the world. If you listen to his sermons, they were never complicated to understand. They never went off into the weeds, theologically. It was a very simple gospel message and he wasn't very histrionic about it either. He didn't get way off into the yelling, stomping of feet that a lot of evangelists did - a lot of poor imitations of Billy Graham did.

TERRY: How did Billy Graham shape the South?

TOMLINSON: For a lot of people outside this country and outside this part of the country, Billy Graham was probably one of the first prominent Southerners they saw. And I think that image of the preacher, the evangelist coming to save your soul - a lot of people took that message to heart. A lot felt that it was sort of oppressive. Certainly, as other preachers came along who were more strident and more aggressive than Billy Graham was, I think, that idea of evangelism got twisted a little bit and became a lot more off-putting to a lot of people - certainly those from outside the South. But for a long time Billy Graham was one of the faces of the South to the world and I think, for most people, he represented our part of the country pretty well.

Credit Billy Graham Evangelical Assocation
FILE: Billy Graham in his element.

Editor’s note: This commentary below was first published June 1, 2007. It is republished here with permission from the Charlotte Observer.

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.

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.

"My whole life has been to please the Lord and to honor Jesus, not to see me or to think of me." - Billy Graham in 2007

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.”

Credit Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
Billy Graham at his home before recording one of his final messages.

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.

Credit Billy Graham Evangelical Association
FILE: Billy Graham gets ready to deliver one of his final messages.

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.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.