‘You can make your days count’ — Billy Graham’s message in WPB address

Evangelist Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at 99, spoke of life’s brevity when he addressed then-Palm Beach Atlantic College’s graduates in West Palm Beach in 1997.

“Not one of us at any age has a clue as to how long we will live. You can’t count your days. But you can make your days count,” Graham, then 78, said.

“Time is the capital we’ve been given by God to invest wisely,” he said in the 25-minute speech at the city’s old auditorium. “The question is: Where do we invest it?”

Graham, known for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to millions of people worldwide and living a life of integrity, died at his home in Montreat, N.C.

Graham had dealt with a number of illnesses in his last years, including prostate cancer, hydrocephalus (a buildup of fluid in the brain) and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

He preached to some 215 million people who attended one of his more than 400 crusades, simulcasts and evangelistic rallies in more than 185 countries. He reached millions more through TV, video, film, the internet and 34 books.

At times, he seemed to fill the role of national clergyman. He read from Scripture at President Richard M. Nixon’s funeral in California in 1994, offered prayers at a service in the National Cathedral for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and, despite his failing health, traveled to New Orleans in 2006 to preach to survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

In his younger days, Graham became a role model for aspiring evangelists, prompting countless young men to copy his cadences, his gestures and even the way he combed his wavy blond hair.

Born Nov. 7, 1918, four days before the armistice ended World War I, William Franklin “Billy” Graham Jr. grew up during the Depression and developed a work ethic that would carry him through decades of ministry on six continents.

His rich, booming voice with its distinctive Southern twang was recognized around the world, including in Florida where the country boy-turned-evangelist preached to thousands at major venues from Jacksonville to Miami. He was also a regular speaker at the Boca Raton Community Church and in 1960 gave it the name “Bibletown USA.”

Dr. Jess Moody, Palm Beach Atlantic University’s first president who started the West Palm Beach-based college, had been friends with Graham since 1944.

“He preached face-to-face to more people than any human who ever lived,” Moody, 92, told The Palm Beach Post. “I loved Billy. He was real. He was definitely real.

“He preached to preach to all,” Moody said. “Most preachers, if they preach to a lot of people, they preach a high-powered sermon. Billy didn’t. He preached as if he were explaining the gospel to someone who had never heard, and made it as simple as he could. That is what drew the people.”

In March 1961, Graham, backed by a 1,000-voice choir, preached to 12,000 people at Cooley Memorial Stadium in West Palm Beach.

Wednesday, William Fleming, now president of PBAU, recalled Graham as jovial and engaging during the 1997 graduation weekend, where Graham’s grandson, Aram Tchividjian, joined the renowned preacher on stage as he was presented with an honorary sacred oratory degree.

“He was a communicator for the ages,” Fleming said of Graham. “Many people have tried, but very few have succeeded in replicating what he created.”

Fleming said both Graham and Moody were “maverick preachers.”

“They knew no boundaries, and I think that Dr. Graham was a risk-taker for the gospel, as was Jess,” Fleming said.

Graham had considered starting a university in Palm Beach Gardens with insurance magnate and landowner John D. MacArthur.

While MacArthur offered financing and land, Graham said he turned him down to remain focused on evangelism.

Moody, the man who would go on to start PBAC, now known as Palm Beach Atlantic University, might never have come to West Palm Beach if it weren’t for his friendship with Graham.

Moody said Wednesday that in the late 1950s Graham was preaching at a crusade in Miami and it wasn’t going well in the predominately Jewish community. Graham asked Moody to come to the crusade. Graham’s executive assistant, T.W. Wilson, was scheduled to preach in West Palm Beach.

“T.W. Wilson had to stay with Billy. He asked me to go to West Palm Beach, and I spoke at the First Baptist Church. They said, ‘Well, if Billy’s man is here, he might be interested in being the pastor of our church,’” Moody recalled, leading him to take the job.

Unlike other famous ministers, Graham was seldom touched by scandal or innuendo, Moody said. He set high standards and never allowed himself to be alone with a woman other than his wife, whether it was in an elevator or a restaurant.

“During his crusades, he had a body guard sitting outside the door to keep him from people who were trying to frame him. That bodyguard was a champion wrestler, and he carried two guns. If anybody came to the door, he showed the guns,” Moody said.

But Graham was not without critics. Early in his career, some mainline Protestant leaders and theologians accused him of preaching a simplistic message of personal salvation that ignored the complexities of societal problems like racism and poverty. Later, critics said he had shown political naïveté in maintaining a close public association with Nixon long after Nixon had been implicated in the Watergate scandal.

Graham’s image was tainted in 2002 with the release of audiotapes that Nixon had secretly recorded in the White House three decades earlier. The two men were heard agreeing that liberal Jews controlled the media and were responsible for pornography.

“A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine,” Graham said at one point on the tapes. “They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.”

Graham issued a written apology and met with Jewish leaders. In the interview in 2005, he said of the conversation with Nixon: “I didn’t remember it, I still don’t remember it, but it was there. I guess I was sort of caught up in the conversation somehow.”

As Graham’s popularity grew, so did his stature with Christian critics who had dismissed his interpretation of Scripture as overly literal. (He told his audiences, for example, that heaven was a physical place, though not necessarily in this solar system.)

Early on, he abandoned the practice, common among Southern fundamentalists, of speaking only before racially segregated audiences. He refused to “preach Jim Crow,” as he put it, and in the turbulent 1960s made several “visits of racial conciliation” to the South.

In the 1940s, Moody and Graham preached with Youth for Christ International in Europe. Both preached in Paris, and Moody was asked to speak to 300 members of the Communist Party at its headquarters there. Moody was fearful about going.

“Billy said, ‘Go in there and preach the gospel and leave your life in the hands of God. The communists are not going to kill you,” Moody said. “I got courage from Billy about that.”

The day after the meeting, 17 of the 300 “hardcore Communists” met with Moody and said they wanted to become Christians.

Graham’s straightforward preaching style was admired, but his appeal went beyond that, because he was a person of humility, simplicity and integrity, said Mike Griffin, assistant professor of Cross-Cultural Studies in PBAU’s School of Ministry.

Griffin, who attended a Billy Graham crusade in Atlanta in the 1970s where the stadium was filled every night, said, “He wasn’t two different people. He preached what he lived. That is what elevated him to be such a draw to people.

“He was ministering in an era, a time in this country, when the way he preached, the way he shared the simplicity of the message and the way he demonstrated the kingdom of God to people, it met something that was needed,” Griffin said. “I think that God really just did honor him.”

The Grahams lived on a 200-acre mountain retreat in Montreat. His wife, Ruth Bell Graham, died in 2007. He is survived by his sons, the Rev. William Franklin III and the Rev. Nelson Graham, known as Ned; three daughters, Virginia Tchividjian (known as Gigi), Anne Graham Lotz and Ruth Graham McIntyre; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The New York Times contributed to this story.

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