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Montreat reacts to Billy Graham's death
The internet buzzed early Feb. 21 with the news of the Rev. Billy Graham’s death, but there was an eerie calmness in Montreat as a drizzle of rain fell on nearly empty streets.
Graham, regarded by many as the most influential preacher in the history of Christianity - and the Swannanoa Valley’s most famous resident - died at his Montreat home at age 99.
The influence of Graham was enormous. He met with 12 consecutive sitting U.S. presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, many of them in his cabin high above Montreat. For more than 50 years, Graham traveled the world to minister to hundreds of millions of people in 185 countries.
Fran Aceto, who with her husband lives in Montreat, remembers Fourth of July parties that the late Andy Andrews used to give and that Graham attended. Grilled hamburgers and homemade ice cream were on the menu, but what impressed Aceto was how Graham would eat at the table with the younger people, like her and her husband, some four decades ago.
“He wanted to know what we were thinking,” Aceto said. “He didn’t think he was any bigger than anyone else. He was very humble.”
Graham met his wife Ruth, who passed away in 2007, when the two attended Wheaton College in Illinois. The Grahams married in 1943 and moved to Montreat, where Ruth’s missionary parents, Virginia Myers and Dr. L. Nelson Bell, lived. Graham, who turned 99 in November, was an “integral part of the community,” Montreat mayor Tim Helms said.
“He was such a gracious man,” Helms said. “If it wasn’t for all of his works, I think he would’ve been an obscure guy, because he didn’t go out looking for fame. He was a genuine gentleman and great evangelist.”
The influence of Graham can be felt throughout the area. In 2015, Montreat College renamed its primary chapel, where Billy and Ruth Graham were wed, “Graham Chapel.” Graham did not attend the ceremony, but his eldest daughter - Virginia “Gigi” Graham - said at the time she couldn’t think of anything that would please her parents more.
“It’s hard to capture this man in words,” said Karlene Shea, who worked in Graham’s office and was married to the late George Beverly Shea, whose rich baritone singing accompanied Graham on the crusades. Graham didn’t seek recognition and deflected praise to God and the power of prayer, she said. In her telling, Graham considered himself a mere conduit to salvation. God did the real work, was Graham’s approach, Shea said. But work he did.
“He would come back from his crusades and go right back to work on his sermons,” she said. “People would come in (to his office) and want his autograph on books and Bibles, and I would explain that he needs his time.” His “team,," as she called it – George Beverly Shea, T.W. Wilson and others – were how Graham got so much done, Shea said. “They honored his every wish. Whatever Mr. Graham wanted, they did it yesterday, before he even asked.”
Montreat resident Tom Frist met the Grahams when, as a young child, Frist would walk by their first home in the community and pet their Great Pyrenees dog. Ruth invited him in for breakfast.
“I kept coming back for breakfast,” he said, recalling how he came to know the Grahams. “Eventually she asked to meet my mother and they became close friends.”
The Grahams were “like a second family to me,” Frist said. When he and his brother served in the Army during the Vietnam War, they ate with Billy Graham when he visited troops in the country. “I didn’t know Billy as well as I knew Ruth when I was younger, because he was always traveling,” Frist said. “But I came to appreciate him so much over the years. I always loved Ruth, but I came to love Billy as well. He was such a humble man.”
Frist lives down the street from the Graham home, where many well-known guests visited over the years. Frist himself once took U.S. Rep. and civil rights leader John Lewis to visit his neighbor. “There was a picture taken of John Lewis and Billy Graham, and John said ‘I’ll keep this close to my heart,’” Frist said.
Graham was raised on a farm near Charlotte and moved to Montreat after he married - in Montreat College’s Gaither Chapel in 1943 - Ruth Bell, who had attended Montreat College's high school program in 1936, according to the college. The Grahams built a cabin on Montreat's Little Piney Ridge.
Graham used to slip in to First Baptist Church in Swannanoa about once a year to attend services, said Dan Snyder, worship and senior adult pastor there. “There would be such a buzz that Billy Graham was there,” he said. “I remember one Sunday it was his birthday, and I was asked to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. I don’t think I heard the congregation sing any better than that morning. It was so exciting.”
Graham didn’t particularly want the attention, Snyder recalled of those yearly, random visits. He seemed to want to be able to slip into the service like anyone else, despite the entourage he typically had with him on those Sunday mornings. But sometimes he was successful, especially at the beginning of worship. Then whispers would get around that Graham was sitting in the back, or somewhere, and the energy in the church would change. There was an excitement in the air, Snyder said.
“He didn’t want to interrupt our worship time. He was a person who wouldn’t call attention to himself,” Snyder said. “He was just a humble man who was seeking after God like we all are. He just wanted to be himself during the service.”
Sally Pereira of Black Mountain spent her teen years in Montreat near the Graham family. “Uncle Billy” and “Aunt Ruth,” as she came to call them, were in Pereira’s house a lot, and she was at theirs, hanging out with their children. Pereira, now 69, describes the Graham house during those days in the 1960s as the most normal one you could have, even as Billy Graham’s fame began to rise. The Graham kids were rambunctious (she remembers some of them sitting on the Montreat Gate, charging tourists a nickel or dime to let them take their picture).
When Pereira’s father died (he was T.W. Wilson, Graham’s friend, colleague and traveling companion), Graham went to the Pereira household in Montreat to comfort the young Sally Pereira (nee Wilson). “He said, ‘let me be your daddy,’” she said, treasuring the memory. He let her cry and comforted her with prayers and promises that her father was bound for heaven.
Eventually, as Graham's fame and family grew, the family moved higher up the mountain in Montreat. They bought the house next to theirs to serve as his office and study. Pereira worked there, as part of the early Billy Graham ministries.
She recalls that the office staff would have daily devotions, and Graham often sat in. When he was there during her time to lead, she felt a bit intimidated, she said. Who was she to lead the prayers for a world-famous evangelist?
But Graham bowed his head and followed her lead just like the rest of the office staff. She loved him for that. It underscored Graham’s belief that no one person was any more worthy than any other, that despite his gathering fame that he was just another person humbling himself in front of God, she said.
“He was always the one who would say, I’m not the boss, the Lord is the boss,” she said. “He was so humble and loving and concerned about people, one on one and not just when he was holding the big crusades.”
In the Montreat office when she worked there, “if anyone was critical and tried to do a hatchet job on him (publicly), he would say, I want y’all to pray with me that I will never be guilty of what they are accusing me of. He tried never to fight back and lash out. He just wanted his life to disprove the criticism. He wanted to learn from it.”
Even as he became better known, Graham held on to his friends in Montreat and Black Mountain. Sometimes in his more physically fit days, he would would walk down the mountain from his house to Pereira’s house not far from the Montreat Gate.
“He’d stop by our house,” Pereira said, “and holler in, he’d say, ‘Mary Helen (Pereira’s mother), what are you fixing for lunch today?’ And she’s say, ‘I have some squash and lima beans that me and T.W. (T.W Wilson, Pereira’s father) are going to eat, you’re welcome to stay.’ And he’d say, ‘if you don’t mind.’
“He loved home cooking and homemade ice cream. He and daddy, a lot of times in their travels, would try to get to Cracker Barrel so they could have some good country cooking. When we’d pick them up at the Charlotte airport, they’d always tell us to stop at Bridge’s Barbecue in Shelby.”
Pereira remembers that her father and Graham loved to play golf at the Black Mountain Golf Course and have lunch afterward at the Coach House restaurant in town. People in Black Mountain treated the Grahams like anyone else, in part because the Grahams didn’t ask for anything else, she said.
But local residents were protective. When tourists would show up in Montreat and ask for directions to the Grahams’ house, residents would often send them off in the wrong direction, Pereira said. “They treated the Grahams like neighbors. They would make a churn of ice cream and invite them over.”
“Sad” wasn’t the right word to describe how Frist felt when he learned of Graham’s passing. “I’m not really saddened,” he said. “He’s going to be with his lord and savior, and he’s done such a wonderful job here on earth. It’s a joyous time really - he’s going home to be with Ruth, and they loved each other.”
Black Mountain resident Kiersten Hall was a member of a team that helped coordinate some of Graham’s crusades, which were conducted between 1947-2005. Hundreds of campaigns were held in 185 countries on six continents, and Hall traveled city to city in the United States helping prepare for Graham’s arrival. Hall was struck by Graham’s humility.
“The way he approached everyone around him stood out,” she said. “He made eye contact with everyone around him and welcomed anyone to talk and share with him. He wanted to acknowledge everybody, and he didn’t want to be treated like a celebrity.”
Before age limited his physical activity, Graham was often seen around the Swannanoa Valley, including the Black Mountain Golf Course, where he attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the back nine in the 1960s.
It was on the course that Graham learned of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, according to Graham’s 1997 autobiography “Just As I Am.”
“We had just teed off for the fifth hole right next to the road when Loren Bridges, manager of WFGW, the Christian radio station we owned there, drove up and shouted that the president had just been shot,” he wrote in the memoir. “Just then, the Black Mountain golf pro, Ross Taylor, came running out, shouting the same news.”
Graham rushed back to the radio station to pray for Kennedy and his family. He learned just prior to Walter Cronkite’s report on CBS that the president had died. “I dared not break such news to western North Carolina until a public announcement was made,” Graham said in his memoir.
Graham’s impact on Montreat College and the town of Montreat “cannot be overstated," Montreat College president Paul J. Maurer said in a statement Feb. 21. "He and his wife Ruth were tireless advocates for the college, giving of their time, money, and spiritual guidance over the course of more than 60 years. Even as Billy rose to the level of a national and international figure, he and Ruth maintained deep roots in the local Montreat community as loyal friends, neighbors, and civic leaders."
The Grahams played a big role in Montreat College’s history, the college stated in the press release. Billy and Ruth Graham attended convocations, banquets and building dedications there. In the early 1970s, they raised money to help build the L. Nelson Bell Library, named for Ruth Graham’s father.
“Their significant personal and financial support during crucial moments helped Montreat College grow into the fully accredited four-year liberal arts institution that it is today,” the college stated. In 1991, the college awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters to Billy Graham for "a commitment to preaching the Gospel throughout the world and for a lifetime of dedicated and unselfish service to others."
“I have just been crying my eyes out,” Pereira said of hearing the news that “Uncle Billy” had died. “Everyone has to die, but this is such a shock,” she said. “I can’t imagine a world without him. But I know that it is not the end. It’s the beginning of eternity.”
Graham is survived by five children: Virginia “Gigi” Graham, Anne Graham Lotz, Ruth Graham, Franklin Graham and Nelson Edman Graham, who are all active in the ministry today.