Billy Graham found his calling as a Bible college student in Tampa

Billy Graham's photo in the Florida Bible Institute 1940 yearbook "The Beacon". The school is now named Trinity College of Florida. Photo courtesy Trinity College of Florida
Billy Graham's photo in the Florida Bible Institute 1940 yearbook "The Beacon". The school is now named Trinity College of Florida. Photo courtesy Trinity College of Florida
Published Feb. 21, 2018

TAMPA — It is a story as old as the Old Testament itself: the righteous man who comes out of a corrupt and sinful place.

Noah rode out the flood.

Moses led his people out of Egypt.

And Billy Graham emerged as a young evangelist from Tampa, a city of racketeers once known as "the hell hole of the Gulf Coast."

Graham, who died at age 99 on Wednesday, came to Tampa in January 1937 as a skinny, 18-year-old college student with an impressive pompadour.

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Behind him was one unhappy semester at Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tenn., a school more boot camp than seminary.

So he transferred to the Florida Bible Institute, then housed in a Spanish-style former country club on the banks of the Hillsborough River in Temple Terrace.

Even as a raw teenager, Graham's presence foreshadowed his career as an evangelist.

"He had talent and grace and dignity that was really beyond his years," the late Charles Massey of Tampa, who roomed next door to Graham at the institute, told the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) in 1998. "He had a charisma, you could sort of feel it when he walked in the room. He was excited about what he was doing."

Graham was not much of a scholar, but he was popular. He served as president of his 11-member class, edited the yearbook and worked in the cafeteria to pay his school fees.

On his days off, he would paddle a canoe to a little island in the river. There, he would preach to birds, alligators, cypress stumps. From shore, classmates teased, "How many converts did you get today, Billy?"

Soon after arriving in Temple Terrace, Graham began courting the dark-haired Emily Cavanaugh and asked her to marry him. On the night of the biggest social of the year, she told him she couldn't, that she wanted to marry his friend Charles Massey instead.

For months afterward, Graham went for long walks at night, doubting himself, questioning everything.

In May 1938, one of those walks took him to the golf course.

"Looking up at the moon, the stars, the moss, it was quite a wonderful evening," he said in 1998. "All of a sudden, I just felt God was speaking to me, and he said, 'I want to use you.' "

He kneeled on the edge of one of the greens, then lay down on what he called "the dewy turf."

" 'Oh God,' I sobbed, 'if you want me to serve you, I will,' " he wrote in his autobiography. "The moonlight, the moss, the breeze, the green golf course — all the surroundings stayed the same. No sign in the heavens. No voice from above. But in my spirit I knew I had been called to the ministry. And I knew my answer was yes."

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Graham went on to minister to the down-and-out in gospel missions in downtown Tampa, at the Tin Can Trailer Park in Palmetto Beach, at the dog track in Sulphur Springs and inside the city stockade.

Preaching on N Franklin Street, Tampa's skid row, Graham delivered "his first sermons to a live audience" in a city that was "less than holy," University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino said Wednesday.

By then, Tampa had been drawing crusaders like Billy Sunday for decades. They always called for a moral awakening, Mormino says, but nothing ever really changed.

To the contrary, during Prohibition some Tampa police were as likely to cooperate with bootleggers as the feds.

And after Prohibition ended in 1933, Tampa mobsters muscled in on bolita, Ybor City's popular but illegal numbers game. As their influence grew, so did political corruption.

Bribery marred the 1934 election. The 1935 mayor's race required the National Guard to set up machine gun placements in downtown Tampa to quell armed factions, shootings and attempts at ballot-stuffing.

THE MAYOR'S RACE OF 1935: The day Tampa hit 'rock bottom'

By the late 1930s, Graham's preaching drew up to 1,000 people.

At the Tampa Gospel Mission off Franklin Street, "many of them were drunk when they came in," Graham told the Tampa Tribune in 1998. "That was my first experience with that kind of thing."

At Graham's graduation in 1940, the future looked grim, with war tearing apart Europe. But valedictorian Vera Resue said that in dangerous times God chooses men like Martin Luther and John Wesley "to shine forth" in the darkness.

"The time," she said, "is ripe for another."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.