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From the archives: Billy Graham found his calling as a Bible college student in Tampa

Billy Graham, then a student at the Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace, shakes hands with the school's founder, Dr. W.T. Watson, on the college's campus. The Florida Bible Institute is now known as Trinity College. Photo taken in the late 1930's. [Photo provided by Trinity College]
Published Feb. 21, 2018

Editor's note: This story was part of the Times' coverage of the "Billy Graham Crusade," which stopped for three days at Raymond James Stadium in October 1998. Graham died Wednesday.

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

Moses led his people out of Egypt. Lot fled from Sodom and Gomorrah. And Billy Graham emerged as a young minister from Tampa — after answering God's call to the ministry on a golf course.

While Graham was a college student here in the late 1930s, Tampa was earning a reputation as "the hellhole of the Gulf Coast" for illegal gambling, crooked elections and official misconduct.

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"Tampa attracted, beginning in the early 20th century, a remarkable number of crusaders and evangelists," said University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino. Most, like Billy Sunday, tended to end their sermons "with a summons to make Tampa more moral. And, of course, nothing ever really changed."

Graham came not as an established preacher but as a skinny, 18-year-old student. He had spent an unhappy semester at Bob Jones College in Tennessee, which was more boot camp than seminary. Though Graham was interested in Bible study, he also liked sports, girls and sunshine.

In January 1937, he transferred to the Florida Bible Institute, which occupied a Spanish-style former country club on the banks of the Hillsborough River in Temple Terrace.

A day after arriving, Graham was pressed to take a group of visitors on a driving tour of Tampa during the height of Gasparilla, the city's raucous pirate invasion and parade.

"Well, I had never heard of the Gasparilla and I'd never been to Tampa," Graham said in 1976. After his tour, "those people never came back to Florida Bible Institute again. Dr. (W.T.) Watson (the college's founder) lost some potential givers to the school."

During his 3½ years in Hillsborough County, Graham ministered to the down-and-out at gospel missions on Franklin and Jefferson streets downtown, in West Tampa, at mobile home parks and in the city stockade. He apparently had little contact with the rough elements running Ybor City at the time, but they were there.

During Prohibition, federal officials named the Tampa Police Department as the least cooperative in Florida. An Ybor City old-timer once told Mormino of the friendly uniformed cop who helped him unload barrels of hooch at a local cafe.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the Italian mobsters who had controlled bootlegging in Tampa needed a new source of revenue. So, they muscled in on bolita, the popular but illegal numbers game that arrived with the city's Cuban cigarmakers.

"Bolita seemed to most people a harmless pastime," Mormino said. "The problem is that it became so powerful that it corrupted the political process."

In 1934, machine politicians bribed voters and poll-watchers in "hot" precincts of West Tampa and Ybor City to steal the election for U.S. Sen. Park Trammell, who was fending off a challenge from a young Claude Pepper.

The next year, the National Guard was called out to keep the peace during the mayor's race, and soldiers set up machine gun nests downtown. Two people were shot, and 3,000 more votes were counted than there were registered voters.

Reformers were unwelcome. When Joseph Shoemaker tried to organize the leftist Modern Democrats in 1935, he and several others were arrested. On their release, they were forced into cars, driven far out of town, flogged and abandoned. Shoemaker died, but no one ever went to prison.

But Temple Terrace then was more rural than it is now, and little of Tampa's worldly problems reached the Florida Bible Institute's tree-covered campus.

"We were unaware of that going on," recalls Charles Massey of Tampa, a retired Army chaplain who roomed next door to Graham at the institute. "We were naive."

And sheltered.

"There was so much to do on campus — canoeing, volleyball, Ping-Pong, tennis — that we really never had to leave it for our social contacts," Graham wrote in Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham.

Years later, the institute changed its name to Trinity College of Florida and moved several times. It is now in New Port Richey. Meanwhile, another private school, Florida College, took over the Temple Terrace campus in the mid-1940s.

Graham was not much of a scholar, but he was popular, serving as president of his 14-member class and editing the yearbook. He also washed dishes and caddied for visiting ministers.

"Billy was, as he is now, really an unassuming fellow," Massey said. "He had talent and grace and dignity that was really beyond his years. 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 often paddled a canoe to a little island in the Hillsborough River, where he would preach to birds, alligators and cypress stumps. Lining the riverbank, fellow students teased, "How many converts did you get today, Billy?"

Soon after arriving, Graham began courting the dark-haired Emily Cavanaugh. He proposed by letter but was upset when she would not wear his corsage to a school party. That night, she said she wanted to marry his friend Charles Massey.

Massey said he and his wife don't give interviews on such personal matters, but he dismissed past reports that she went with the man who seemed at the time to have the brighter career as a preacher ahead of him.

"They just felt that the Lord was calling them in two different directions," he said. "She went with me all over the world, and he found the girl who went with him all over the world."

Graham had better luck with his "practical" work, which sent him to Tampa Gospel Tabernacle on N Jefferson Street. That site is long gone, paved over by Interstate 275's Malfunction Junction.

In the summer of 1939, Graham was asked to replace the minister at the tabernacle and lived for six weeks in a parsonage next to the church. One night, he awoke to realize someone had broken into the house.

"In the closet, I kept my old .22 rifle, left over from my hunting days on the farm," he wrote in his autobiography. "I eased out of bed, got the gun, put a cartridge in it and shot it through the door into the ceiling of the next room. That loud bang was followed almost immediately by the bang of the back door as the intruder left."

On other matters, Graham was less decisive. Throughout his years at the Florida Bible Institute, he struggled with the idea that he might not be cut out for the ministry after all. The call, he said, came on the edge of the 18th green at the golf course next to the institute.

"Did I want to preach for a lifetime? I asked myself that question for the umpteenth time on one of my nighttime walks around the golf course," Graham wrote in his autobiography. "The inner, irresistible urge would not subside. Finally, one night, I got down on my knees at the edge of one of the greens. Then I prostrated myself on the dewy turf.

"Oh God," I sobbed, "if you want me to serve you, I will."

The 18th green of what is now the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club, where Graham says he heard God's call while a student at Florida Bible Institute.

"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."

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Still, one anecdote from Graham's college days wonderfully foreshadows the man he was to become.

At Graham's graduation in 1940, the future looked dark, with war looming in Europe. But valedictorian Vera Resue said that in dark days "God has chosen an instrument to shine forth his light in the darkness. Men like Luther, John Wesley, Moody and others were ordinary men, but men who heard the voice of God.

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


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