Billy Graham's life and ministry remembered

Tom Rowland
Posted 3/1/18

Many years ago a lanky, young man from North Carolina came here to Cleveland to begin his college education.Billy Graham started classes that semester in 1936. He got a job selling shoes at a store …

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Billy Graham's life and ministry remembered


Many years ago a lanky, young man from North Carolina came here to Cleveland to begin his college education.

Billy Graham started classes that semester in 1936. He got a job selling shoes at a store downtown, but it turned out Billy was not very good at selling shoes. His calling, as the whole world would learn, was to save souls.

As a student, the young man worshipped at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Cleveland. He preached his first sermon at Charleston Methodist Church and his second at Antioch Baptist.

Never shy about advising people in authority, the young Graham told Bob Jones some of the college’s rules needed to be changed. Mr. Jones told the young student he could leave the college if he didn’t like the rules. Billy Graham went to school in Florida. He became a preacher and went on to become "America’s Pastor."

Bob Jones College moved to Greenville, S.C., and the campus here became Lee University. Today, the school is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Named after its second president, the late F.J. Lee, the school has come a long way since 1918, making the transition from college to comprehensive liberal arts university granting graduate degrees.

 The City With Spirit has always been proud of its special place in the Billy Graham story. About five years ago, Gigi Graham, one of Billy's and Ruth’s daughters, came to Cleveland. We celebrated Billy Graham’s city connection by naming part of a street through Lee University’s campus as Billy Graham Avenue.

Following her father’s directions, Gigi led us to the dormitory room in Medlin Hall, where the young Billy Graham lived. When she told her father she was coming to Cleveland for the honor, he spent some time reminiscing with her about his time here. And he asked her to visit the dormitory and to also First Presbyterian Church and the shoe store where he had worked.

 Lots of photos were taken to send back for her father to review. Arriving at Medlin Hall, she followed his directions, taking us directly to the room as he remembered. Lee University President Dr. Paul Conn also hosted Gigi in his office and the two of them shared some history of the campus and her father’s time in Cleveland.

 Taking her on a tour of the campus and downtown, she shared with us that Billy Graham had vivid memories of Cleveland, and he told her he had hoped he could have returned one day for a visit. That event was in April 2012, and his health had prevented him from extensive travels for some time.

Last fall, to celebrate Billy Graham’s 99th birthday the city renamed the rest of that campus street as Billy Graham Avenue, allowing the extension to take the street through to the next intersection of the campus. As we gathered to unveil the new street signs that rainy day, the ceremony was transmitted live to Montreat, N.C.,  to allow the Graham family to watch the proceedings. The Rev. Jay McCluskey of North Cleveland Baptist Church led a prayer and recalled his childhood memories of Billy Graham.

Gov. Bill Haslam named Billy as an honorary Tennessee citizen. I announced he was likewise an honorary citizen of Cleveland.

When we learned that Billy Graham had "gone home" last week, we draped the street signs along Billy Graham Avenue in black. We gathered at one of those signs for prayer. Dr. Mark Williams, pastor of North Cleveland Church of God, led the prayer. We were joined by representatives of Lee University.

People were stopping and taking their own photos of those draped street signs. Some went to Medlin Hall where large wreaths of white flowers hung on the front doors. Students gathered on the steps of the hall to remember America’s pastor who once lived there.

 The past few days since his death,  TV news has captured the event. Thousands lined the streets as his casket was taken about 130 miles — from a funeral home in Asheville to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. Later, his body would lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington before a return to Charlotte for a funeral and burial Friday.

We’ve seen and heard stories from people around the globe who were positively affected by Billy Graham’s life and ministry.  My  personal memories of attending two Billy Graham Crusades will forever live in my heart — one in New York and another in Knoxville.  He impacted many lives, including mine.

 For more than 70 years, Billy Graham has shared the Gospel with the world. He's presented the truth about Jesus Christ to millions from tent revivals, to churches and cathedrals to the White House. He sought to draw hearts closer to faith. He authored many books and I have many in my own library, some of them dating back to his early ministry.  His final books are the most cherished as he shared messages of  “My Hope,” “Salvation” and “Eternity.”

Cleveland, Tennessee, is truly The City With Spirit. That description can mean different things to different people — an enterprising spirit, a patriotic spirit and more. It also describes us as a city of faith.

And with that thought in mind, The City With Spirit is humbled and honored that Billy Graham’s powerful ministry had a beginning here and that he passed our way.

He is now “home.”


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