Mr. Graham's Spokesman
THROUGHOUT HIS DECADES-LONG PUBLIC ministry, evangelist Billy Graham, Wheaton’s best-known alumnus, established a benchmark of behavior and belief, and modeled integrity and humility as an extraordinary example of how to finish well.
I first heard Mr. Graham preach when I was just nine years old as a young face in a record-setting crowd of 116,000 at the closing service of his 1962 Chicago Crusade. From where I sat with my folks near the top corner of Chicago’s Soldier Field, he appeared as a speck on the stage more than a quarter mile away. Due to the sweltering, 100-plus degree heat, I don’t recall a thing he said—only my incredible, unquenchable thirst.
At the time, I couldn’t yet envision the extent to which my life would be impacted by Mr. Graham. I never imagined that the house in which I grew up while my father taught in the Wheaton Graduate school would later be razed in order to build The Billy Graham Center; or that I would have the privilege to serve as Mr. Graham’s spokesperson and media representative for more than three decades, beginning in 1981.
A PROUD WHEATON HERITAGE
I first met Mr. Graham not long after I graduated Wheaton, while working for organizers of a hotel convention in Memphis during the summer of 1976. After his prayer breakfast address to thousands of Holiday Inn franchise owners, I followed the conference director backstage where Mr. Graham was about to take a photo with their entire corporate board.
“Billy Graham, there is a young man here who went to the same college as you and would like to meet you,” the director said.
In his gracious, non-judgmental style, Mr. Graham broke out of the lineup, shook my hand, and turned to the group that included some of the most influential men in the hospitality industry. For several minutes, he nostalgically enlightened them about our common background and beliefs, based on our shared theological, intellectual and missional heritage of Wheaton.
Mr. Graham explained that Wheaton College was founded, in part, as an anti-slavery school before the Civil War, and that the first graduating class included the nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe. He highlighted the institution’s long history combining social concern with the strength of the biblical gospel, stressing that the College had never deviated from its mission over the years.
Mr. Graham further emphasized the seminal influence our alma mater had on his life, noting that he met his wife Ruth and gained perspective on his calling and career while on campus. He also credited Wheaton as the place where he started in evangelism, pastoring a local church as a student, and from which he begin his evangelistic ministry, working for Youth for Christ, headquartered in nearby Chicago.
What I didn’t know at the time, but later observed on countless occasions through the years, was that beyond providing a passionate primer on the educational facility that provided an intellectual and spiritual turning point in his life, Mr. Graham leveraged our connection during that interruption as a sensitive and suitable gospel witness.
I began serving Mr. Graham in 1981, handling media and public relations for him and his ministry. Just prior, I was again in the crowd on a beautiful fall day in 1980, when he came to campus to dedicate the center bearing his name. At that time, there was an undercurrent of student protest and numerous Record articles expressing concern that Wheaton’s motto, “For Christ and His Kingdom,” would be replaced by, “For Graham and His Center.”
But nothing could be further from the truth. Having a front-row seat for more than three decades observing all God accomplished around the world through Mr. Graham’s faithfulness, I know there has been no better ambassador of Wheaton College, and no greater representative for living to do all things “For Christ and His Kingdom.”
Over the years Mr. Graham and I had several conversations comparing our respective experiences as Wheaton students. On more than one occasion he expressed his appreciation for the school’s mission to train young men and women for leadership in every area of society. He was especially grateful that the school’s liberal arts approach to education, integrating faith, and learning across all disciplines enabled him to major in anthropology. As a result, he was equipped for his life’s work with a better understanding of world religions and a foundational empathy for people from all cultures.
A GLOBAL WITNESS
People often ask me what one word describes Billy Graham’s witness, but I have to use three: faithfulness (to his calling), authenticity (the same person on-on-one as in the pulpit), and integrity (doing the right thing, beyond doing things right).
I was reminded of that parallel paradigm by Dr. Jim Pleuddemann ’65, M.A. ’71, in his challenge to Wheaton Associates during my 35th class reunion in May 2011.
“The number one problem today is the disconnect between truth and life,” he said. “Knowing the truth is necessary, but not sufficient; neither is being able to discern culture.”
Recognizing Wheaton College exists to help build the church and serve society worldwide, Dr. Pleuddemann likened that mission to a split-rail fence, with the top bar representing the truth of theological orthodoxy and the bottom symbolizing cultural relevancy (to which I would add a middlerail of intellectual integrity, based on conversation with President Philip Ryken ’88). Since a fence must be joined by posts, he concluded a Wheaton education provides that connection between truth and life, preparing students to be whole and effective Christians in today’s world.
I immediately realized this as the legacy of Billy Graham, a man consistently reported to preach with a “Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” For him, the fence post that connects truth and cultural relevancy is the Word of God. Throughout his ministry, he has invoked his signature phrase, “The Bible says,” to emphasize and demonstrate how Scripture speaks to personal problems and societal issues.
Like the Apostle Paul at the Areopagus in Athens, for decades Billy Graham faithfully traveled to the Areopagi of our day—the world’s arenas and stadiums. At each crusade he temporarily turned these temples to the gods of entertainment and sport into cathedrals, to make the previously unknown true God known to crowds seeking to quench a spiritual thirst far beyond my physical craving for something to drink at Soldier Field years ago.
A COMMITMENT TO THE GOSPEL
Mr. Graham considered every moment an opportunity to serve the Lord and share His gospel. One of my early encounters with his strength of character and commitment was in connection with the first network television interview I arranged for him on NBC’s Today. Assuming he would want to have a word of prayer before he went on the air, when we arrived I informed his long-time traveling associate, Dr. T. W. Wilson, that I had pre-arranged a private area off the greenroom for us to commit the interview to the Lord.
“The first thing Billy did when he got up this morning was to start praying in his room,” Dr. Wilson replied graciously in what became an important teaching moment for me. “He prayed during breakfast and in the car on the way over from the hotel. He is praying right now and will continue to pray his way through this interview. Let’s just say Billy tries to keep himself prayed up all the time.”
I learned many such exemplary lessons about the responsibility and opportunities we have as followers of Christ to live lives pleasing to and effective for the Lord before a watching world. Another of these was Mr. Graham’s bold gospel witness through both word and deed whenever possible—including in every media situation—for which God honored his faithfulness.
While it is standard procedure for an interview subject to count to ten or recite what he had for breakfast during a microphone check before a broadcast, Mr. Graham would always quote John 3:16 from the New Testament. When I asked him why, he replied, “Every time I do an interview, I try to work the gospel into the conversation; but if for some reason I don’t have that opportunity, at least I know that the cameraman heard it.”
A PARTING CHALLENGE
On my last visit with Mr. Graham to the Wheaton campus for his 50th class reunion in 1993, he gave a special challenge to graduating seniors in his commencement address. “Your generation will bear the brunt of the future’s uncertainties,” he said. “You can count your days, but with Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you can make your days count.”
Billy Graham—Wheaton’s favored son, America’s pastor, evangelist to the world and my mentor and friend—made his days count; and he finished well, remaining faithful to his calling to preach the transformational message of the gospel throughout his public ministry.
His influence was so broad and his impact so far-reaching, we won’t know this side of heaven the extent of his legacy, no matter how clearly defined. And it is not likely we will see another like him in our generation.
LARRY ROSS ’76 IS PRESIDENT OF A. LARRY ROSS COMMUNICATIONS, A DALLAS-BASED PUBLIC RELATIONS AGENCY. SINCE 1981 HE SERVED AS PRINCIPLE MEDIA SPOKESPERSON FOR EVANGELIST BILLY GRAHAM ’43, LITT.D. ’56, AND IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WEBSITE BILLYGRAHAMLEGACY.INFO