There are very few Southern icons still around. Bear Bryant has been dead for decades. Elvis, a decade longer. Willie Nelson is still kicking, but not as high anymore, and there are few people who even remember Minnie Pearl.
But one Southern treasure is still with us. I am speaking of the Rev. Billy Graham, a child of the pre-Depression North Carolina Bible Belt, who has probably touched more lives across this nation and around the world than any evangelist of the past 100 years.
The televised Billy Graham Crusades were a big deal at our house when I was a kid. My mama, and all the grown-ups I knew, would get really excited. Me, not so much, of course, because it seemed to me, as a child, that when they rolled around they aired every night for a whole week and always aired when I wanted to watch Red Skelton or Andy Griffith.
But when the crusades came on, I watched, along with my mama and the ladies who lived on our street. And even though I couldn't understand the context of all that was going on, I was mesmerized by the great preacher's penetrating eyes and long wavy hair. He looked like what I imagined the Old Testament prophets to look like, if the Old Testament prophets wore dark suits and silk neckties, of course.
I liked the way he used his hands in the pulpit. Sometimes he even pounded his Bible to make a point and I didn't always understand what he was saying, but I was absolutely convinced that his message was coming in on a direct line from the Almighty. Fifty-five years, later I still am.
I am a huge admirer of Billy Graham. I realize that he is not infallible. He is a man, just like me -- only more so, to quote Rick Blaine, which I bet no one else has ever done while speaking of Dr. Graham. But I have listened to Dr. Graham's sermons, read his books and studied his life for a long, long time and I think he has come as close to getting evangelism right as anyone has ever come in my lifetime.
I was reading about the early days of his ministry a while back and was impressed with his devoutness and the great lengths to which he went to avoid any appearance of impropriety. I read that after a particular service, in Atlanta I believe -- maybe even at the old Ponce de Leon Park -- a photograph had appeared in the paper of Graham with the evening offering. It made him look like, or so he thought, like he was preaching for the money. After that he appointed a financial minister to his ministry and never personally touched another dollar except for his paycheck.
I also read that he was so concerned about the appearance of sexual impropriety that he never allowed himself to be anywhere alone with a woman who was not his wife, even to the point of stepping off an elevator car, if need be, and waiting on another. I don't know if that is true, but it is what I read.
None of this is what impressed me the most about Billy Graham, however. Long after I was forced to sit and listen to his sermons because it was just the thing to do at my house, I learned to love to listen to his sermons because they rang so true and made so much sense and spoke, so much, to my heart. He always preached right out of the pages of Scripture, but still could make a verse from 3,500 years ago seem perfectly relevant to the lifestyles of the 21st century -- with good reason, of course. They are.
Billy doesn't get out much anymore, of course, but his Classic Crusades are still shown on television and I watch them several times a week. I still love hearing George Beverly Shea singing gospel songs and I still enjoy seeing those in attendance walk down from their seats far from the pulpit and come to kneel at the altar and give their lives to Christ as the hymn of invitation, "Just As I Am," is played. I often wonder how those people's lives, who made such very public professions of faith, on national television, were changed.
Honesty compels me to admit that I enjoy seeing the hairstyles and fashions from the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, too, and often think, "Did we really look and dress like that?" knowing, of course, that we really did.
But most of all, I still enjoy hearing the messages of inspiration and hope, given with confidence and assurance and rooted deeply in the Word of God -- messages that even an old linthead educated in a public Southern university can understand, live by, and hang his chance at eternity on.
God bless you, Billy Graham, and thank you for your service. I'm glad that we in the American South can claim you as our own.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at email@example.com. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.