The interview was not going well.
There I was, in a coveted one-on-one meeting with Billy Graham in his home in Montreat, N.C., in August 1998. It took months to get this interview for the Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV. The newspaper and the TV station had committed to a special section and a documentary to run in advance of Graham’s upcoming four-day October crusade in Tampa.
I had asked him all the prepared questions, and he answered them all respectfully, but almost by rote. After all, this was a man who had been interviewed thousands of times in his six decades as a traveling evangelist.
Now he was just shy of 80, suffering from Parkinson’s, and a little hard of hearing. The fire-and-brimstone Billy was no more. This was a gentle, quieter version of the charismatic southerner who came to be known as "America’s Pastor" and shaped modern-day evangelism across the globe.
I decided it was time to throw out the crib notes and wing it.
"Dr. Graham, do you ever just get sick of the Bible?"
Whoa! It was like waking a sleeping giant. He straightened his back, jutted out his firm jaw and gripped the sides of his leather chair. With his piercing blue eyes, he looked at me almost incredulously.
What I would have done for a rewind button at that moment.
"Sick of it?" he responded passionately. "Never! Every time I read a scripture, I get something new out of it, something that speaks to my heart."
With some subjects, that question might have brought a hasty conclusion to the interview. Not with Graham.
After that, he became more engaging and gregarious, even extending our allotted one hour to two. He talked frankly about life with his beloved Ruth (they were married nearly 64 years before her death in 2007), their five children, and his regret for not being around enough to raise them, his favorite scriptures (John 3:16 and Jude 3), the power of Satan, the inevitability of death, the prospect of heaven and his prayerful encounters with presidents.
In all, Graham counseled our country’s leaders from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. Party affiliation meant nothing to him. He played golf with John F. Kennedy, rode around LBJ’s vast Texas ranch and spent the night at the White House on the first night of Nixon’s presidency. Jimmy Carter was his biggest fan.
But whether his audience was the Queen of England (yes, that happened) or homeless veterans at a shelter, his main objective never changed: Bring souls to Christ. He believed it was better to do it through love, not divisiveness or hard-line boundaries.
Regrettably, that style is rarely utilized these days by conservative Christian leaders. His own son, Franklin Graham, now CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, lacks that diplomatic tact, often getting tangled up in political activism and controversies that would make his father cringe.
It was a whirlwind covering that crusade 20 years ago for the newspaper and the station. Both outlets committed a small army of staffers and a generous budget to the four-day event. Raymond James Stadium was filled with overflow enthusiastic crowds every night, drawing followers from all over the Southeast.
During that time, I had several encounters with both Graham and his gracious wife, who generally shied away from the limelight. But Tampa was a special place for them.
Because this was where it all began.
In our interview, he happily recounted his time in Tampa as a young student at Florida Bible Institute. This is where the skinny kid from North Carolina honed his speaking skills, heading to solitary spots along the Hillsborough River to give a theological tongue-lashing to cypress stumps and resting alligators.
As he gained confidence, he moved on to human audiences — in jails, on street corners, at gospel missions and soup kitchens. Occasionally, he got overzealous, taking his sermons into downtown bars and getting booted out when customers complained.
At age 19, still unsure what path he would take in ministry, Graham got his answer. It was under the illumination of a moonlit night, near the 18th hole of the Temple Terrace Golf Course, where he had gone to pray after losing a girlfriend and finding new direction in his life. That’s when he says God spoke to him, saying, "I want to use you."
Billy Graham found his calling and he ran with it. He let God use him his whole life.
As a journalist, I had the opportunity to meet plenty of famous people over the years. I made it a point to never pose for a photo with them, or ask for an autograph. But I must confess I broke that rule with Billy Graham.
Having covered so many scoundrels and religious scandals in nearly 30 years as a faith reporter, I had been consistently disappointed (still am) by organized religion. But with Graham and his long and mainly untarnished history, it felt different. Yes, he had some missteps, and I certainly didn’t believe he was beyond reproach. He called himself a sinner, "just like everyone else."
But he always felt like the real deal. Despite all his fame, Graham remained humble and grounded. He stayed on message and kept it simple. His sturdy and steadfast Christian faith never wavered.
Michelle Bearden of Tampa is a freelance writer and covered religion for the Tampa Tribune.