The Rev. Billy Graham appeared on Gallup's annual list of America's most admired men for the first time in 1955. His name would appear on the list 61 times before his death this week at age 99.
In Arkansas, the North Carolinian was respected, even revered, in many Christian households.
"I can tell you that my wonderful grandmother, mother of my father, just thought he hung the moon, as the old saying goes," said Mack McLarty, the Hope native and former White House chief of staff.
The grandmother, Kathleen McLarty, was a faithful Presbyterian, but her fondness for the young Southern Baptist evangelist was unmistakable.
"She was such an admirer of his, I heard a lot about Billy Graham in my younger years and followed his career because of that," McLarty said.
In the 1950s, people were already referring to Graham as the most famous Protestant preacher in the United States.
His carefully organized crusades drew crowds in cities across America.
Griffin Smith, the former White House speechwriter and longtime Arkansas Democrat-Gazette executive editor, heard Graham preach in Manhattan more than six decades ago.
"In June 1957, the national high school Key Club convention was in New York. I was at Central High then, and we sent a large Key Club delegation by train, our own private rail car, from Little Rock. By coincidence this was at the same time as Billy Graham's New York crusade," Smith said. "I remember going over to Madison Square Garden one evening -- it was my 16th birthday -- to attend the crusade with my friend and Central High classmate Frank Nakamura. It was an extraordinarily powerful experience. At the end Frank and I looked at each other and without hesitation came forward for the altar call."
Thousands of others went forward during the New York crusade. Originally scheduled to run six weeks, it ended up running nearly 16 weeks -- from May 15-Sept. 1.
Telling Ebony magazine, "There is no color line in heaven," Graham worked hard to draw nonwhite worshippers to the event, inviting Martin Luther King Jr. to the platform one evening, giving singer Ethel Waters a starring role and adding a charismatic black evangelist, the Rev. Howard O. Jones, to his crusade team.
When Graham came to Little Rock in 1959 to preach, some segregationists protested, warning that he would try to integrate the city's white churches. But then-Gov. Orval Faubus urged Graham's critics not to interfere with the integrated worship services.
Over two days, an estimated 50,000 Arkansans, white and black, gathered in prayer at War Memorial Stadium.
In the years that followed, Graham was frequently referred to as America's pastor.
He also influenced and inspired many of the nation's leading evangelical preachers.
"I met Billy when I was 17 years old back in Houston, Texas [in 1953]. So that's been 65 years," former Southern Baptist Convention president Jimmy Draper said. "Probably outside of my dad, who was also a pastor, nobody had more of an impact on my life than Billy did."
The Hartford native first heard Graham preach in 1951 in Fort Worth. "I got out of school and spent the week singing in the choir," he said. "That was my first encounter with him. He was a remarkable individual."
Draper said Wednesday that he'd been wiping away tears as he realized Graham was gone.
"We got to work this morning and I just sat down and had a little cry," he said. "There was never anybody quite like him."
It wasn't just Baptist ministers who looked up to the evangelist.
Alton Garrison, former pastor of First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, served on the administrative committee for the 1989 Little Rock crusade.
"I was the only non-Baptist, as I recall," he said.
Garrison and his wife, Johanna, knew the power of Graham's message. His mother-in-law had responded to a crusade altar call in Amsterdam decades before.
"She got there and she answered the invitation and was radically transformed. Saved. Amazingly saved," he said.
Her husband converted as well; their seven children would all go on to embrace the faith.
"That event opened the door of salvation for Johanna's whole family," he said.
Religion on 02/24/2018
Print Headline: Graham admirers recall his influence