I have been privileged to serve as spokesman and media representative for evangelist Billy Graham for more than three decades, during which I have observed there is no difference between his public and private personality. Mr. Graham is the same individual one-on-one over dinner as he is preaching to thousands in the pulpit or millions from a TV studio.
Though he was a spiritual advisor and confidant to many top international leaders, he always makes anyone in his presence feel like he or she is the most important person in the world at that moment. Unlike many who have attended Mr. Graham’s crusades through the years, my first impression was not a memorable, life-changing experience.
When I was nine years old, my parents dragged my brothers and me to the closing ceremony of Mr. Graham’s Greater Chicago Crusade at Soldier Field. It was a hot, muggy Sunday afternoon in June with 94-degree temperatures and 97-percent humidity. I was sitting in the next-to-last row of the stadium—one of 100,000 people in the blistering sun—and Mr. Graham was just a speck far below.
All I can remember is how hot and thirsty I was. I didn’t meet Mr. Graham in-person until years later, shortly after graduating from Wheaton College when I was working as an intern for a company that helped organize large corporate conventions. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do with my life, but the idea of working in media appealed to me, even if I was just passing out flyers, fielding phone calls, making photocopies and hauling boxes.
I’d been working hard at a convention in Memphis for Holiday Inn franchise owners when my boss asked me, as a reward, if I wanted to meet any of the speakers. “Sure,” I said, “I’d love to shake hands with Mr. Graham,” who’d spoken at a prayer breakfast in the hotel that morning. “No problem,” my manager replied.
The next thing I knew, he escorted me across the hall and barged into a photo session Mr. Graham was doing that very minute. “Billy Graham, this young man went to your alma mater and wants to meet you.” I was mortified. What could I possibly say to the renowned evangelist and why would he want to greet a kid like me?
After all, he was in the midst of taking a group photograph with our client’s distinguished board of directors, and we’d just interrupted them. But Billy Graham did something I would see him do time and time again. He turned 100 percent of his focus on me as if I was the most important person in that room.
More significantly, he followed Jesus’ example of pivoting from an intrusion to create an opportunity; with distinguishing sincerity and authenticity, he leveraged our shared heritage as a platform to present a bold Gospel witness. It would be several years before I would meet Mr. Graham again.
After beginning my career with The General Motors Corporation, I soon landed at a large P.R. firm in New York, where one of my primary responsibilities was to shepherd baseball great Joe DiMaggio around to various media events. I was also tasked with assisting in media liaison for other clients, including a major whiskey distillery.
At times, I found myself conflicted with their business objectives, such as when it required securing product placement in “Seventeen” magazine – hardly the right audience for its message. As I began contemplating and praying about pursuing a new direction with my career, I was offered a life-changing opportunity from the agency-of-record for The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
They were looking to provide value-added professional public and media relations support for Mr. Graham, and needed someone with national experience and contacts for cross-over representation at the intersection of faith and culture. The mission and message was always very clear—it wasn’t about promoting Billy Graham around the world; it was about furthering his message of God’s love and forgiveness.
With his characteristic humility and dedication, Mr. Graham was simply the messenger, faithfully delivering that “good news.” There were big events, —stadium-filling crusades, network media interviews, photo opportunities and meetings with world leaders and hotel bellmen—but just as many encounters with airport skycaps and hotel bellmen.
And I was privileged to have a front row seat at the game, observing how Mr. Graham spread his message in the same way he had the first time we met, by being transparent and accessible in sharing God’s love through intentional one-on-one interactions behind the scenes with everyone he encountered.
I remember the first time I accompanied Billy Graham to do a sound check prior to a TV interview. I knew from experience that most people would just count to ten or say what they had for breakfast, but not him. As the soundman hooked-up his studio guest to a microphone and asked him to speak, there was no “Testing, testing, one, two, three” for Mr. Graham.
Instead he launched into the transforming words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall never perish, but have eternal life.” When I later asked him why, Mr. Graham replied, “In every interview, I try to share the Gospel whenever possible.
But if not, for whatever reason, at least I know that the cameraman heard it.” And over the years, God has honored his faithfulness in that regard. Other times Mr. Graham demonstrated the Gospel by his actions. Once I was with him in Los Angeles for a black tie gala dinner at The Beverly Hilton hotel that was taped for broadcast as a prime-time television special.
He worked hard to get his part right, shooting his interaction with the host several times until the producer was satisfied. It was a glittery star-studded event, with one celebrity after another parading down the red carpet and mingling with other guests in-between takes. At one moment a prominent actor came over to our table, greeted Mr. Graham warmly and then launched into a raunchy joke, creating a tense, awkward moment for him and the mixed company within earshot.
I could tell, I’m sorry to say, exactly where the story was going, but Mr. Graham listened with his customary courtesy and attention. When the comedian shamelessly came to the punch line, there were a few awkward laughs followed by a stunned silence as other guests waited to see how Mr. Graham would respond.
But he just matter-of-factly gave the comic a big bear hug, turned to the table and said—without a hint of judgment or condemnation, “This man has always been one of my best friends in Hollywood.” The universality of Mr. Graham’s message was powerfully impressed upon me in 1989, when he preached a stirring sermon to the Queen of England at a lavish dinner attended by the Lords and Ladies of London.
Two days later I accompanied him to a park in London’s East End, where his audience was a decidedly down-market crowd of 5,000 immigrants. I asked him what message he planed to give them. “The same one I gave to the Royal Family two nights ago,” he said. Mr. Graham’s humility was clearly evident in another behind-the-scenes moment in the greenroom before an interview on NBC “Today.”
He was just beginning to exhibit Parkinsonian symptoms, making it difficult to write. While we were waiting, a producer—it could have been me that first time I met him—asked him to sign her personal copy of his just-released Memoirs, Just as I Am. “Of course,” he said. The producer stood by as Mr. Graham gripped the pen and slowly wrote his name.
Obviously moved, having come to faith at one of his crusades, the woman did something that I had never seen anyone else do in all my prior years with him. Though people were constantly asking Billy Graham to pray for them, she asked if she could pray for him. “Of course,” he said again. Then she knelt down and gave as moving a prayer as any he had offered on others’ behalf.
Afterward I took that as my practice, which I have continued ever since. At the end of a meeting with Mr. Graham, either over the phone or in-person, after I had asked about his health and family and we had covered all the necessary business, I was intentional about praying with and for him.
Though my responsibilities involved serving as spokesperson, making contact with the media on his behalf and ushering him in and out of greenrooms and studios, I made it a point to lift him up before the Lord he so faithfully served. After all, God had been a partner in his work from the beginning.
Though countless people over the years have asked Mr. Graham to sign things, after that producer left he was sincerely puzzled by the attention. “I have never understood why in the world anyone would want my signature,” he said. At heart he considered himself “just a country boy, called to preach.”
But he surprised me when he said matter-of-factly, “I have only asked for one autograph in my whole life.” I spent several minutes pondering who that individual could possibly be. At first I thought it was Babe Ruth, whom I knew he had greeted after a ballgame when he was 12; or perhaps it was President Truman, whom he met on the first of many visits to the White House.
Or it could even have been Winston Churchill, who summoned the evangelist to his private chambers after his successful crusade at Wembley Stadium back in 1954. I sheepishly offered my guesses. “No,” Mr. Graham said. “It was John Glenn,” telling me they had sat together at a Time magazine 75th-anniversary gala at Radio City honoring all living cover subjects in 1998.
“As we got up to leave, John asked me for my autograph. I responded, ‘I’ve never asked anyone to sign something in my whole life. Could I have yours?’ And so we swapped autographs.” Billy Graham faithfully preached a timeless message in a timely way for more than six decades. He put the green grass of the Gospel down low where “even the goats could get it.”
I have been honored to get to know him as a colleague, mentor and friend. But the way he was with me was the way he was with everybody. Anyone who met this humble messenger of God’s love.
Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a Dallas-based media/public relations agency founded in 1994 to provide cross-over media liaison at the intersection of faith and culture. For more than 33 years, he served as personal media spokesperson for evangelist Billy Graham, and is responsible for the website, http://www.billygrahamlegacy.info and curator of the video streaming channel, http://bit.ly/BillyGrahamLegacyYouTube.
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