Writer recalls one-on-one talks with Graham

When I was a little girl in Barnesville, Ga., my daddy insisted on watching every Billy Graham service that came on the television. In those days I saw the evangelist only as a little figure on a screen who interfered with my regular diet of sitcoms.

As a young bride, I attended a 1973 service in Atlanta. My husband’s great aunt, Opal Hollingsworth, a stalwart member of Central Presbyterian Church, dreamed of seeing Graham in person, so he and I took her. She glowed like a debutante as she circled the old Atlanta-Fulton County stadium on the arm of her great nephew. I was more excited by her reaction than by anything Graham said.

In those days, I never imagined that one day I would be covering religion for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and would hear Graham speak many times and have private interviews with him. As private, that is, as a Graham interview could be with a female reporter. After some other high-profile men were slammed for inappropriate behavior, Graham set a policy of not being in the room alone with a woman other than his wife or a daughter. He wanted no hint of that kind of scandal.

So, when I went up to meet him in Minneapolis in 1992 and in Montreat, N.C., in 1994, the door remained wide open throughout the conversations.

The first interview preceded his visit to Atlanta to speak to a luncheon of civic leaders who hoped to persuade him to hold services in town before the 1996 Olympics. The second was just before those services began.

My trip to Minneapolis coincided with the opening of the Mall of America, the much-touted “country’s largest indoor shopping center,” so I asked whether he planned to visit it.

His reply, “I’m not hot about crowds,” seemed a bit ironic coming from a man who had preached to throngs in the tens of thousands.

I realized in preparing for my drive to Montreat, where he lived, that millions of words had been written about him, including more than one full-length biography, so I decided to focus on his Southern background.

He could not have been more gracious. He talked about his roots deeply planted in the North Carolina soil by farmers who came over from Scotland and Ireland. He answered my questions about race and the plague of segregation, which long outlived the laws that enforced it. AS early as the 1950s, he had begun to speak out agaisnt segregation. And he had insisted as early as the 1970s that his Crusades be integrated, but he had never been seen as an activist, and was criticized by some who were because he never got down into the trenches during the civil rights movement. He expressed the belief that social change results from spiritual awakening.

He talked about his mother, who always dreamed of seeing the world’s wonders in places he would eventually go.

At one point during the interview, he asked me to shift my chair because he was having trouble hearing my questions. My voice was in the same range as his wife, Ruth’s, he said, and he had trouble hearing her, too.

Truth be told, Ruth was my favorite Graham. I talked at one time or another to each of their children, and I heard both his daughter Anne and his son Franklin speak. Although her Bible lessons sounded an awful lot like sermons, Anne “taught” instead of “preached” because women couldn’t be preachers in her conservative evangelical orbit. Still, to me, she was the Graham who really got her father’s gift.

The children talked about being shaped by their mother’s quiet faith and their father’s bold commitment, but Ruth was no wallflower. Although the family may have claimed to live by the tradition that the husband was head of the household, the Graham daughters recalled a saying their mother passed on to them: “A Christian wife’s’s responsibility balances delicately between knowing when to submit and when to outwit.”

While her husband was out helping God to save the world, Ruth bore the responsibility of herding five not always Godly children. Billy Graham later expressed regret that he had not been more involved in their lives.

The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China, Ruth retained her denominational affiliation despite intense pressure from some leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, her husband’s affiliation. She used a flyswatter on her children’s behinds when she felt they needed it, and did her dead-level best to maintain privacy and normality in the midst of the world’s curiosity about her family.

She died in 2007.

Billy said at the time, “”Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team… .I will miss her terribly, and look forward even more to the day I can join her in heaven.”

Now, if his faith was well-placed, Graham has.

May he rest in peace.

Gayle White was a longtime reporter and religion writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.