CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Three former U.S. presidents came to honor him, the last one letting out a sob as he spoke.
Speaker after speaker praised him — his love of God, his humility, his six decades on the road, preaching to 210 million people. They dedicated a new, $27 million library to commemorate his life.
Then Billy Graham, his once-roaring voice diminished by age and illness, told a crowd of well-wishers Thursday that their attention was in the wrong place.
“This building behind me is just a building,” the 88-year-old preacher said in view of the new Billy Graham Library. “It’s an instrument, a tool for the Gospel. The primary thing is the Gospel of Christ.”
The 40,000-square-foot complex traces Graham’s rise from farm boy to America’s pastor and was built to carry on his work after he is gone.
The emotional dedication ceremony for the library had the air of a final tribute. Even Graham quipped that “I feel like I’ve been attending my own funeral.” And he was overcome himself while paying tribute to his 86-year-old wife, Ruth, who has degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck and is bedridden at the couple’s home in Montreat.
Graham suffers from fluid on the brain, prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease, and is largely confined to the mountainside home himself. He was driven by golf cart to the stage, where he used a walker and leaned on his son and successor, Franklin, to reach a seat.
A comfort to four generations in Bush family
President George H.W. Bush sobbed as he spoke of how much the minister meant to him, calling Graham “a spiritual gift to all of us.” Bush noted that the preacher had comforted four generations of the president’s family; that includes President George W. Bush, who sent Graham a handwritten note last week.
Presidents Carter and Clinton recalled how Graham’s insistence that his crusades be racially integrated helped bring blacks and whites together in the South.
But Clinton said Graham, who has met every U.S. president since Harry Truman and became a confidant to many of them, is just as impressive for his personal kindness.
“When he prays with you in the Oval Office or upstairs in the White House, you feel he’s praying for you, not the president,” Clinton said.
As chief executive of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the Rev. Franklin Graham has primary responsibility for preserving his father’s legacy. He initiated the idea for a library, which opens Tuesday and will be free to the public.
The complex was built on the wooded grounds of the association, and among its designers was the ITEC Entertainment Co., which has done work for Disney and other theme parks. The dairy farm where the preacher grew up is just a few miles from the site and the library reflects his roots.
The entrance is a barn with a 40-foot cross and the cavernous lobby has scattered bales of hay and milk cans. The sounds of a cackling chicken and neighing horse are piped in. The first Bible verse Graham’s mother taught him, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” is engraved onto a rafter.
A tribute more than a review
To the right is a cow shed, where a display that has drawn the most curiosity stands. An animatronic black-and-white cow named Bessie says in a Southern drawl that Graham has been “preaching the pure milk of God’s word for 60 years.” Bessie tells kids to “get moo-ving” to learn more about the preacher.
Critics have dubbed the display the “Golden Calf” and say it cheapens Billy Graham’s legacy. But Franklin Graham said it is meant as an appeal to children.
The museum is more heartfelt tribute than scholarly review.
Graham’s personal papers will be stored at the museum and will be managed by Wheaton College, the evangelical school in Illinois that has an archive of documents from his crusades. Billy and Ruth Graham met there as students.
There are photos of Graham with U.S. presidents and displays of gifts they gave him, including a golf club and a check that President Nixon passed along to the preacher as an offering. However, there is no mention of how Graham’s close ties with Nixon had cast a shadow on the minister.
Old television clips shown
Old TV sets broadcast clips of the troubled times in America when Graham preached, including the Civil Rights era. Graham has been praised for integrating his crusades starting in 1953, but also criticized for his restrained support for the movement.
Designers have recreated the scene of Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles tent revival, dubbed the “Canvas Cathedral,” that lasted for weeks, drawing national attention to his ministry for the first time. A replica of the Berlin Wall is meant to underscore how remarkable it was that Graham won permission from communist governments to evangelize behind the Iron Curtain.
Billy Graham’s children have been divided over where their parents should be buried — at the library or at The Cove, a Bible training center near the Grahams’ home. Franklin Graham believes his parents have decided the location, but “haven’t made that public yet.”
“I’ll do whatever he tells me to,” Franklin Graham said. “I don’t care. He’s going to be in heaven.”
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