Evangelist Billy Graham, who died Feb. 21 at the age of 99, once characterized himself as “about the same as anyone else.” That self-effacing description has stuck with me for some 55 years now – ever since I interviewed and talked with Graham several times in the course of a crusade he was conducting in Fresno and I was a reporter on The Fresno Bee, covering the eight-day event in 1962.
The affection and respect for Graham survived all those years, despite his later-regretted links with the administration of President Nixon and despite some anti-Semitic comments by Graham on the Watergate tapes, which he also apologized for.
Graham recognized he was on unsteady ground in politics, but he had a relapse in 2012 when he strongly supported GOP candidate Mitt Romney.
Still Graham generally had a freshness and down-home decency about him and a self assurance about the Gospel he preached. He just did not, could not come across as the self-promoting and hate-filled religious phonies who dominate much of today’s Christianity in the United States.
And who dominated much of yesterday’s, too.
Carl Sandburg’s 1916 poem, “Ode to a contemporary bunkshooter,” targeted an Iowan born in Ames, Iowa, in 1862 – the rip-snorting evangelist Billy Sunday. The opening lines of Sandburg’s ode capture the revulsion many have toward evangelists:
“You come along … tearing your shirt … yelling about Jesus.
“Where do you get that stuff?
“What do you know about Jesus?
“Jesus had a way of talking soft and outside of a few bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem everybody liked to have this Jesus around because he never made any fake passes and everything he said went and he helped the sick and gave the people hope.
“You come along squirting words at us, shaking your fist and calling us all damn fools so fierce the froth slobbers over your lips… always blabbing we’re all going to hell straight off and you know all about it.”
And then Sandburg gets nasty.
While I was acquainted with Sandburg’s ode, thanks to an American Lit class at Fresno State, I never associated it with Graham for lots of reasons; here are two:
▪ A Bee photographer, Carl Crawford, and I were at Ratcliffe Stadium, approaching Graham for a photo shoot depicting Billy and his Bible – lots of planned shots with Graham gesturing, pointing to scripture, reading.
As we walked toward Graham, a local overweight minister came up from behind us and, I gather, impressed with his self-importance, tried to restrain Carl, grabbing his right bicep. I don’t recall that Carl and I changed pace. I do remember that Carl, no lightweight himself, shot his right arm back, burying his elbow a few inches into the minister’s gut.
We left the pastor in our wake, kind of doubled-over and gasping to catch his breath.
(The perverse merriment of that episode obviously has stuck with me, the sort of adventure that we young reporters thought made the job so worthwhile – and we were paid, too! Not until I started writing this piece did it dawn on me that nowadays Carl and I likely would have been charged with assault, the paper would have been sued… or maybe not.)
When we had completed our assignment and were saying goodbye to Graham, Carl said something like: “You know, sir, you’re a pleasure to work with, but some of these local people around you…”
Graham knew where Carl was heading: “Yes, I know. It’s like that most places we go. Thank you.”
▪ Before the start of the crusade, I had a lengthy interview with Graham, getting comments for an opening piece and perspectives for the upcoming coverage. Graham had just come to Fresno from a golf outing in Monterey or maybe at Pebble Beach in Carmel.
I had no plans to ask him about that, but toward the end of our conversation, I asked, “So, what do you say when you miss a short putt?”
I never used his answer in a story; in fact haven’t shared it much at all. Maybe it didn’t fit, maybe it would distort the piece, putting unwarranted emphasis on the trivial – these were the old days.
(Nowadays, I can hear the lead-in to “Inside Edition” on TV: “The whole world wants to know: What does Billy Graham say when he misses a short putt? Stay tuned. We’ll tell you!”) Graham’s response was not immediate, and he didn’t say the question was out of bounds.
The response was simply, “Oh, I guess I say the same as anyone else.”
Billy Graham, the evangelist who gained celebrity status because, in important ways, he was about the same as anyone else.
Herb Strentz is a Clovis High School and Fresno State graduate who worked for The Bee 1958-63. He earned a Ph.D. at Northwestern University and is professor emeritus of journalism at Drake in Des Moines, where he and wife Joan live.